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Bookworm

Updated 2 months ago

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Intellectual, accessible, and provocative literary conversations.

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Intellectual, accessible, and provocative literary conversations.

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The incomparable Silverblatt

By cookie11ru - Nov 01 2019
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I wonder if he had that voice as a child?

The Best

By FloydLQ - Sep 28 2018
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The greatest Silverblatt is the most insightful reader alive

iTunes Ratings

389 Ratings
Average Ratings
271
51
27
19
21

The incomparable Silverblatt

By cookie11ru - Nov 01 2019
Read more
I wonder if he had that voice as a child?

The Best

By FloydLQ - Sep 28 2018
Read more
The greatest Silverblatt is the most insightful reader alive
Cover image of Bookworm

Bookworm

Latest release on Aug 06, 2020

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Intellectual, accessible, and provocative literary conversations.

Rank #1: Jenny Offill: Weather

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Jenny Offill’s Weather is a book about people living very much in our times. Lizzie Benson becomes a librarian who helps people with their concerns about the future, then she becomes the letter writer for the popular podcast Hell and High Water. This is a podcast that teaches people how to live in the present moment without despair. Offill says her primary interest is to bring the sublime into the everyday, and the ordinary into the sublime: Weather is about the spirituality of dailiness.

Mar 12 2020

28mins

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Rank #2: Rebecca Solnit: Recollections of My Nonexistence

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Recollections of My Nonexistence is a personal, cultural, political, and journalistic hybrid narrative about formative years in the life of Rebecca Solnit. A first-person account from San Francisco in the 1980s, she describes finding her voice, and invokes the possibility of others finding their voices as well. Nobody should have to carry the burden of nonexistence. Solnit finds beauty in the contemporary revolution of storytelling, and says each voice has a capacity to bear witness to what’s happened.

Book excerpt: Recollections of My Nonexistence Chapter 1:

One day long ago, I looked at myself as I faced a full length mirror and saw my image darken and soften and then seem to retreat, as though I was vanishing from the world rather than that my mind was shutting it out. I steadied my- self on the door frame just across the hall from the mirror, and then my legs crumpled under me. My own image drifted away from me into darkness, as though I was only a ghost fading even from my own sight.

I blacked out occasionally and had dizzy spells often in those days, but this time was memorable because it appeared as though it wasn’t that the world was vanishing from my consciousness but that I was vanishing from the world. I was the person who was vanishing and the disembodied person watching her from a distance, both and neither. In those days, I was trying to disappear and to appear, trying to be safe and to be someone, and those agendas were at often odds with each other. And I was watching myself to see if I could read in the mirror what I could be and whether I was good enough and whether all the things I’d been told about myself were true.

To be a young woman is to face your own annihilation in in- numerable ways or to flee it or the knowledge of it, or all these things at once. “The death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world,” said Edgar Allan Poe, who must not have imagined it from the perspective of women who prefer to live. I was trying not to be the subject of someone else’s poetry and not to get killed; I was trying to find a poetics of my own, with no maps, no guides, not much to go on. They might have been out there, but I hadn’t located them yet.

The struggle to find a poetry in which your survival rather than your defeat is celebrated, perhaps to find your own voice to insist upon that, or to at least find a way to survive amidst an ethos that relishes your erasures and failures is work that many and perhaps most young women have to do. In those early years, I did not do it particularly well or clearly, but I did it ferociously.

I was often unaware of what and why I was resisting, and so my defiance was murky, incoherent, erratic. Those years of not succumbing, or of succumbing like someone sinking into a morass and then flailing to escape, again and again, come back to me now as I see young women around me fighting the same battles. The fight wasn’t just to survive bodily, though that could be intense enough, but to survive as a person possessed of rights, including the right to participation and dignity and a voice. More than survive, then: to live.

The director, writer, and actor Brit Marling said recently, “Part of what keeps you sitting in that chair in that room enduring harassment or abuse from a man in power is that, as a woman, you have rarely seen another end for yourself. In the novels you’ve read, in the films you’ve seen, in the stories you’ve been told since birth, the women so frequently meet disastrous ends.”

The mirror in which I saw myself disappear was in the apartment I inhabited for a quarter century, beginning in the last months of my teens. The first several years there were the era of my fiercest battles, some of which I won, some of which left scars I still carry, many of which so formed me that I cannot say I wish that it had all been otherwise, for then I would have been someone else entirely, and she does not exist. I do. But I can wish that the young women who come after me might skip some of the old obstacles, and some of my writing has been toward that end, at least by naming those obstacles.

Mar 26 2020

28mins

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Rank #3: Stephen Wright: Processed Cheese

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The entertaining syntax and vocabulary of Stephen Wright build a replica of our lunatic times in his new book, Processed Cheese. He writes about the need for money in our degraded era, the end of quality and the beginning of junk: Processed Cheese finds hilarity in the tragedy of contemporary life. A manic life feels worth living in this thoroughly human book that blows up in your face.

Mar 19 2020

28mins

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Rank #4: Harry Dodge: My Meteorite: Or, Without the Random There Can Be No New Thing

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Harry Dodge’s My Meteorite: Or, Without the Random There Can Be No New Thing shifts its scale from the cosmos to viruses. Nothing escapes. Robots and artificial intelligence are discussed in detail. Materialist Dodge says that technology is made by organisms made by matter, so no technology is unnatural. He says, “We are always changing, we’re never fully formed.” This is a book of constant revelation, and a perfect blend of style and content.

An excerpt from “From My Meteorite: Or, Without the Random There Can Be No New Thing,” by Harry Dodge.

March 2016 I walked in — back from Houston — greeted the baby and Maggie and then we (all of us at once) noticed the small box on the front porch. I hauled it into the house and onto our dinner table, held my breath. They watched while I got a knife; there was only the sound of cardboard tearing and then I retrieved a bowling ball of a thing suffocated in Bubble Wrap,

which appeared to be accompanied by zot, neither invoice nor receipt, no language. Remarkably heavy. And bandaged like this, in a relentless sad tape job that looked like it had been performed by a mental patient. Maggie backed away, suddenly nervous, pulled Iggy aside by the back of his shirt. I looked at them and back at the thing; unwrapped it while they watched. There it was, an iron glob of gum. It was buzzing, it was glowing, just smaller than a human head, but much heavier. Unbelievably heavy for its size, like it had a different type of gravity that applied to it; an alien gravity might have applied. It was dark gray but metallic too and had deep pits lined in black: gooey tortuous crevices, folds which were also penetrated by black and burnished in zigs and snoods, coruscant at its facets, or scallops, its outermost convexities, which could have been observed at this point to have been no less vulnerable for being lustrous. It was a turtle from the event horizon, a dog head from Jupiter. All the weight gave two simultaneous and opposite impressions: the impression that it would like to have squirmed away (dropped away maybe? barreled right through the Earth and on into the empty blue-black of space?), and a kind of stalwart noble servitude unstained by fear. I am here telling you, it was saying hello.

Do you think it is radioactive? Are you sure about this rock? Maggie refused to touch it, pulled Iggy out of the room, before relenting just a moment later. We all touched it at once, gingerly, guilelessly. We stared. It was beautiful in the most banal and obvious sense of the word, I mean, plainly and strongly seductive, erotic. It did occur to me that it might spy on us, or resubstantiate like a compressed-foam Jesus into some sort of elephantine cuttlefish overlord, so I didn’t know where to keep it overnight. Maggie was astonished. How do you know it’s real, she asked several times. I showed her a small card I had finally uncovered swaddled beneath the meteorite. Here’s an info card. He said he would send a certificate of authenticity, but I don’t see anything here. Maggie reads the card and says, Found 1527. Argentina, yah, looks like the colonizing Spaniards came upon a group of people who showed them this field, Campo del Cielo, in 1527. So these rocks fell while humans watched.

I treated the meteorite as I would any guest and laid it gently down on a small red wool coaster. And then got under my own covers to sleep. I dreamed that for the rest of my life I would reinvest all of the money that came in from selling artwork to purchase more and more pieces of this particular meteorite, the Campo del Cielo. I would spend my life reuniting the fragments and slowly I would become famous, an artist known for this obsession, and when they were all back together, all of the pieces in one room, there would be a Terminator-like “Rise of the Machines” via this METALLIC REUNIFICATION, a Big Bang in reverse; this thing I had caused, this thing I knew to do. I would be an agent of divine-material chaos—but it wouldn’t be a drag, it would be fate, it would be lovely and epic and right. Like the best heroin but rather than singly ecstatic, encased in ugly nods, it would be ubiquitously, publicly salutary. The stress of the world would gather into a point and, having become too dense to be supported by the web of our collective desire, would whorl into a baby black hole and drop all of the matter of our galaxy through an interstellar poop-shoot into a teardrop-shaped bag of shit which would land in some nature canyon somewhere; it (terrestrial intersubjective tension and its more intellectual cousin, torsion) would then start again so meekly that it might be mistaken for the weak- force itself, gravity. It would glow and the magnetic field would start to creep around a new Earth in another part of the (still) observable universe. We’d all die but our constituent pieces would become other, much cooler, stuff. I woke up horny.

In the morning I decided to take the meteorite out of the house but didn’t know how to carry it; I chose a large clean canvas tote and tried not to bonk it around too much as I walked. It was metal but may as well have been flesh and bone. It was clearly alive to me: an iron creature. On a shelf just above my welder, I let it sit in my studio for three days without looking at it again.

But then things started to happen. Unbelievable things happened.

“From My Meteorite: Or, Without the Random There Can Be No New Thing” by Harry Dodge. Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Harry Dodge, 2020.

Apr 02 2020

28mins

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Elizabeth Wetmore: 'Valentine' (Part One)

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Elizabeth Wetmore discusses her debut novel, “Valentine,” and Southern conservatism that wants to steer clear of the uglier parts of life. “Valentine” begins with a fourteen-year-old Mexican-American girl crawling out of a truck, she has been raped, she makes her way across the desert and knocks on a door—and from here the book takes you in a dazzling number of directions. A novel shaped by the voices of women in 1970s West Texas, with characters subject to the mores of a time and place—racism, sexism—it is the story of those who are heroic within the confines of their own lives.

An excerpt from“Valentine,” by Elizabeth Wetmore.

I used to believe a person could teach herself to be merciful if she tried hard enough to walk in somebody else’s shoes, if she was willing to do the hard work of imagining the heart and mind of a thief, say, or a murderer, or a man who drove a fourteen-year-old girl out into the oil patch and spent the night raping her. I tried to imagine how it might have been for Dale Strickland:

The sun was already crawling toward high sky when he woke up, dick sore and dying of thirst, his jaw locked in a familiar amphetamine clench. His mouth tasted like he had been sucking on the nozzle of a gas can, and there was a bruise the size of a fist on his left thigh, maybe from hours pressed against the gearshift. Hard to say, but he knew one thing for sure. He felt like shit. Like somebody had beaten both sides of his head with a boot. There was blood on his face and shirt and boot. He pressed his fingers against his eyes and the corners of his mouth. Turned his hands over and over looking for cuts, then pressed them against the sides of his head. Maybe he unzipped and examined himself. There was some blood, but he couldn’t find any obvious wounds. Maybe he unfolded himself from the front seat of his pickup truck and stood outside for a minute, letting the harmless winter sun warm his skin. Maybe he marveled at the day’s unseasonable warmth, its unusual stillness, just as I had earlier that morning when I stepped onto my front porch and turned my face to the sun and watched a half dozen turkey buzzards gather in large, slow circles. The work of mercy means seeing him rooting around in the bed of his truck for a jug of water and then standing out there in the oil field, turning 360 degrees, slow as he could manage it, while he tried to account for his last fourteen hours. Maybe he didn’t even remember the girl until he saw her sneakers tumbled against the truck’s tire, or her jacket lying in a heap next to the drilling platform, a rabbit skin that fell just below her waist, her name written on the inside label in blue pen. G. Ramírez. I want him to think, What have I done? I want him to remember. It might have taken him a little longer to understand that he had to find her, to make sure she was okay, or maybe to make sure they were clear about what had happened out there. Maybe he sat on the tailgate, drinking musty water from his canteen and wishing he could remember the details of her face. He scuffed a boot against the ground and tried to bring the previous night into focus, looking again at the girl’s shoes and jacket then lifting his gaze to the oil derricks, the ranch road and railroad tracks, the scarce Sunday traffic on the interstate and behind that, if you looked real hard, a farmhouse. My house. Maybe he thought the house looked too far to walk to. But you never know. These local girls were tough as nails, and one who was mad? Hell, she might be able to walk barefoot through hell’s fires, if she made up her mind to do it. He pushed himself off the tailgate and squinted into the jug. There was just enough water to clean up a little. He bent down in front of the driver’s mirror and ran his fingers through his hair, made a plan. He would take a piss, if he could manage it, and then drive over to that farmhouse and have a little look-see. Maybe he’d get lucky and the place would be abandoned, and he’d find his new girlfriend sitting out there on a rotting front porch, thirsty as a peach tree in August and happy as hell to see him again. Maybe, but mercy is hard in a place like this. I wished him dead before I ever saw his face.

When the time comes and I am called to take the stand, I will testify that I was the first person to see Gloria Ramírez alive. That poor girl, I will tell them. I don’t know how a child comes back from something like this. The trial will not be until August, but I’ll tell those men in the courtroom the same thing I will tell my daughter when I think she’s old enough to hear it.

That it had been a bad winter for our family, even before that morning in February. The price of cattle was falling by the minute, and there had been no rain for six months. We had to supplement with feed corn, and some of the cows foraged for licorice root to help them abort their calves. If not for the oil leases, we might have had to sell some of our land.

That most days, my husband drove around the ranch with the only two men who hadn’t left us for more money in the oil patch. The men threw silage off the back of the truck and fought screwworms. They pulled out half-dead cows that got tangled in barbed wire—they are stupid animals, don’t let anybody tell you different—and if an animal couldn’t be saved, they shot it between the eyes and let the buzzards do the rest. I will tell them that Robert worked all day, every day, even Sundays, because a cow can die just as easily on the Sabbath as any other. Other than the fifteen minutes it took him to choke down a plateful of pot roast—you spend half the day cooking it, and they eat it in less than five minutes—I hardly ever saw my husband. What we need is a tougher brand of cow, he’d say as he stacked his fork and knife on his plate and hand it to me on his way out the door. We need some Polled Herefords or Red Brangus. How do you think we’re going to afford that, he’d say. What are we going to do?

When I think back on that day and finding Gloria Ramírez on my front porch, my memories are stitched together like pieces of a scrap quilt, each a different shape and color, all bound together by a thin black ribbon, and I expect it will always be this way. Come August, I will testify that I did the best I could, under the circumstances, but I will not tell them how I failed her.

I was twenty-six years old, seven months pregnant with my second baby, and heavy as a Buick. With the second one, you always get bigger faster—so say the women in my family— and I had been feeling lonely enough that I occasionally let Aimee stay home from school with some invented malady, just to have a little company. Two days earlier, we had called the school secretary, Miss Eunice Lee.

As soon as I hung up the phone, Aimee Jo started mimicking Miss Lee’s crabby old face. Some people say she’s a direct descendent, and I don’t believe it for a minute, but I will tell you this: if it is true, she sure didn’t inherit the general’s good looks. Bless her heart. My daughter scrunched up her face and pretended to hold the school’s phone next to her ear. Well, thank you for calling, Mrs. Whitehead, but I do not care to know the details of Miss Aimee Jo’s BMs. I hope she feels better real soon. Y’all have a happy Valentine’s Day. Bye-bye! Aimee wiggled her fingers in the air, and the two of us just fell out laughing. Then we started a batch of yeast rolls to eat with butter and sugar.

It was a small thing, me and Aimee standing together in the kitchen while we waited for the dough to rise, the whole day stretched out in front of us like an old housecat, the two of us laughing so hard at her impression of Miss Lee that we nearly peed ourselves. But I sometimes think that when I am on my deathbed, that Friday morning with my daughter will be one of my happiest memories.

On Sunday morning, we were playing gin rummy and listening to church services on the radio. Aimee was losing, and I was trying to figure out how to throw the game without her catching on. While I waited for her to draw the four of hearts, I passed cards and dropped hints. Won’t you be my valentine? Won’t you be my heart? I said. Oh, my heart! I can hear it beating—one, two, three, four times, Aimee Jo. Back then, I did not believe it was good for a child to lose at cards too often, especially a little girl. Now I think differently.

We listened to Pastor Rob finish a sermon about the evils of desegregation, which he likened to locking a cow, a mountain lion, and a possum in the same barn together, then being surprised when somebody gets eaten.

What’s that mean? my daughter asked me. She pulled a card from the deck, looked at it for a few seconds and laid her cards on the table. I win, she said.

Nothing you need to know about, little girl, I told her. You have to say gin. My daughter was nine years old, just a few years younger than the stranger I was about to find standing at my door, waiting for me to pull open that heavy door, to help.

It was eleven o’clock. I am sure of this because one of the deacons—one of those Hard Shell types that doesn’t believe in having any fun—gave the sending prayer. I don’t suppose any serious Baptist would think too kindly about us playing cards while we listened to church services on the radio, but that’s how it was. After eleven, it’s the oil reports, then the cattle markets. That month, you listened to rig counts and new leases if you wanted to hear good news. If you wanted to sit down in your recliner and have yourself a good cry, you listened to the cattle markets.

The girl knocked on the front door, two short and sturdy raps that were loud enough to startle us. When she knocked a third time, the door trembled. It was brand-new, made of oak but stained to look like mahogany. Two weeks earlier, Robert had it shipped down from Lubbock after we had our same old argument about whether we ought to move to town. It was a familiar argument. He thought we were too far away from town, especially with another baby coming and the oil boom getting under way. It’s busy out here now, he argued, drilling crews driving all over our land. No place for women, or little girls. But this fight got ugly and we said some things. Threats, I guess you could say.

Of course, I was tired of watching flatbed trucks tear up our road, tired of the stink, a cross between rotten eggs and gasoline, tired of worrying that some roughneck would for- get to close the gate behind him and one of our bulls would end up on the highway, or Texaco would dump wastewater in the unlined pit they built too close to our well. But I love our house, which Robert’s grandfather built fifty years earlier with limestone he hauled in little by little, in the back of his truck, from the Hill Country. I love the birds that stop over every fall on their way to Mexico or South America, and again in the spring on their way back north. If we moved into town, I would miss the pair of mourning doves that nest under our porch and the kestrels that hover just a few feet above the pale earth, their wings beating madly in the seconds before they swoop down and fetch up a snake, and the sky going mad with color twice a day. I would miss the quiet, a night sky uninterrupted by anything except the occasional glow of red or blue when casinghead gases are being flared off.

Well, this is my home, I told him. I’m not leaving.

At some point, I punched Robert in the chest, a thing I had never done before. He couldn’t hit me back because I was pregnant, but he sure could throw a fist into our front door three, four times. Now I had this pretty new door, and because she had lain in bed listening to us scream at each other in the kitchen, Aimee Jo got a new bicycle, a little Huffy with pink streamers and a small white basket.

We heard the three loud raps and Aimee said, Who’s that? When I thought about it later, when I saw how badly Gloria had been beaten, I was surprised she was able to muster it, to make that thick oak tremble beneath her fist. I hauled myself out of the recliner. We were not expecting company. Nobody comes out this far without calling first, not even the Witnesses or Adventists, and I hadn’t heard a truck or car coming up our road. I bent down and picked up the Louisville Slugger that Aimee had left on the floor next to my chair. You stay put, I said. I’ll be right back.

I opened the door just as a little capful of wind picked up, disturbing a cluster of flies that had settled in her hair, on her face, in the wounds on her hands and feet, and my gorge rose. Christ Almighty, I thought and looked up the dirt lane leading from our house to the ranch road. All quiet, aside from a noisy flock of sand hill cranes wintering next to our stock tank.

Gloria Ramírez stood on my front porch tottering   like a skinny drunk, looking for all the world as if she had just crawled down from the screen of a horror movie. Both eyes were blackened, one swollen nearly shut. Her cheeks, fore- head, and elbows were scraped raw, and vicious scrapes covered her legs and feet. I snugged my fingers around the baseball bat and yelled at my daughter. Aimee Jo Whitehead, run to my bedroom and get Old Lady out of the closet, and bring it here right now. Carry it the right way.

I could hear her moving through the house, and I yelled that she was not to run with my rifle in her hands. When she walked up behind me, I kept my body between her and the stranger on the porch. I reached behind me to take my dear old Winchester from my daughter’s small hand. Old Lady, I’d named that rifle, after the grandma who gave it to me on my fifteenth birthday.

What is it, Mama, rattlesnake? Coyote?

Hush up, I said. Run to the kitchen and call the sheriff’s office. Tell them to bring an ambulance. And Aimee, I said without taking my eyes off the child in front of me, you stay away from those windows or I will beat you to within an inch of your life.

Not once have I beaten my daughter, not once. I got whipped when I was a little girl, and I swore up and down I’d never do it to my own kids. But on this morning, I meant what I said and Aimee believed me, I guess. Without a word of argument, she turned and ran to the kitchen.

I looked again at the child faltering on my porch then glanced away for long enough to scan the horizon. It’s flat enough out here that nobody can sneak up on you, flat enough you can see your husband’s pickup truck parked next to a water tank and know he’s still too far away to hear you shouting for him. You can drive for miles out here without the road turning or lifting, not even a little bit. I stepped farther onto the porch. I couldn’t see anybody who might want to hurt us, but I couldn’t see anybody who might want to help us either.

And now, for the first time since we moved to Robert’s family land, I wished to be elsewhere. For ten years I had been keeping an eye out for snakes and sandstorms and twisters. When a coyote killed one of my chickens and drug it through the yard, I shot him. When I went to draw a bath for Aimee and found a scorpion in the tub, I stepped on it. When a rattle- snake curled up underneath the clothesline or next to Aimee’s little bicycle, I took a hoe to it. Daily, it seemed, I was shooting something or chopping it to pieces or dumping poison down its burrow. I was always disposing of bodies.

Imagine me standing on my porch with one hand on my belly, the other using Old Lady as a crutch while I try to re- member what I had for breakfast—cup of Folgers, piece of cold bacon, the cigarette I sneaked when I went out to the barn to gather eggs. Imagine my stomach turning itself inside out when I bend down to face the stranger on my porch, when I swallow hard and push the salt from my mouth, when I say, Where are you from, honey? Odessa?

Imagine that hearing the name of her hometown breaks whatever fearsome spell the girl is under. She rubs at her eye and winces. When she begins to speak the words come rough, like grains of sand blown through a screen door.

Can I have a glass of water? My mother is Alma Ramírez.

She works nights, but she will be home by now.

What is your name?

Glory. Can I have some ice water?

Imagine the girl might be asking after my okra patch, calm as she seems, remote, and it is this horror hiding behind in- difference that finally causes something to tear loose, to break apart from the rest of me. In a few years, when I think she’s old enough to hear it, I will tell my daughter that my lower belly cramped and went cold as a block of ice. A steady hum started in my ears, faint but growing louder, and I remembered a few lines of a rhyme I had read back in high school, the winter before I left school and married Robert—I heard a fly buzz— when I died—and for a few cramping, cold and miserable seconds, until I felt the unmistakable kick, I thought I was losing the baby. My vision dimmed and I remembered another verse, stray and unconnected to anything. How strange it was to be thinking of poems now, when I had not given them so much as a passing thought all these years since I had become a grown woman, a wife and mother, but now I recalled: This is the Hour of Lead—Remembered, if outlived.

I stood up straight and shook my head gently, as if doing so might help me clear away all that was happening right in front of me, as if I could clear away the terrible fact of this child and whatever hell she had endured, as if I could step back into my living room and tell my daughter, It’s just the wind, honey. Don’t pay any attention, it’s not calling our name today. How about another game of gin? You want to learn how to play Hold’em?

Instead, I leaned heavily on the rifle and rested my other hand on my belly. I am going to get you a glass of ice water, I said to her, and then we’ll call your mama.

The girl gently shifted from side to side, a halo of sand and dirt rising up around her face and hair. For a few seconds, she was a dust cloud, a sandstorm asking for help, the wind begging for a little mercy. My hand reached out to her, as the other stretched behind me to lean the rifle against the door- frame. She leaned hard to one side, a reed in the wind, and when I turned back to grab her—to keep her from falling off the porch or maybe just trying to keep myself upright, I will never be able to say for sure—she ducked her head slightly. Dust filled the sky behind her.

A pickup truck had turned off the ranch road and was starting toward our house. When it passed our mailbox, the driver swerved suddenly, as if briefly distracted by a quail darting across the dirt road. The vehicle skidded toward our stock tank, then straightened out and kept on. The driver was still at least a mile off, rumbling steadily up our road, kicking up dirt and ruddying the air. Whoever he was, he drove like he knew exactly where he was going, and he was in no real hurry to get there.

From VALENTINE. Copyright © 2020 by Elizabeth Wetmore. Reprinted courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

Aug 06 2020

28mins

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Margot Livesey: “The Boy in the Field”

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Three children find a boy lying asleep or dead in a field. The boy’s legs are bloody. One child is sent to the road to flag down someone to call an ambulance. As it turns out, the boy in the field is not dead. Each of these three children interpret what the boy in the field says, how the boy got there, and what the boy’s family life was like—this is fiction at its fullest. Is the reality of each person a locked-room that contains a never-revealed mystery? In this novel, dazzling, shifting points of views and possibilities reveal more than the expected mysteries. Life and story go hand in hand in Margot Livesey’s “The Boy in the Field.”

An excerpt from“2The Boy in the Field,” by Margot Livesey.

T H E  F I E L D

HERE IS WHAT happened one Monday in the month of September, in the last year of the last century. Matthew, Zoe, and Duncan Lang were on their way home from school. Usually they took the bus from the larger town, where they attended secondary school, to the smaller town, where they lived, but that morning their father had said he had an errand to run and would collect them. So they waited beside the school gates, and watched the bus depart. After fifteen minutes, with no sign of the familiar car, they began to walk along the road that led to their town. They each wore a version of the school uniform: a white shirt, black trousers, and a black pullover. Expecting their father to appear at any moment, they walked fast, making it a game to see how far they could get before he pulled up beside them. They left the last houses behind. Hawthorn hedges and an occasional ash tree hid the fields that bordered the road. Through one gate they saw a herd of cows; through another, rows of barley. The afternoon was warm and still; only a few leaves fringed with brown hinted at autumn. Gnats hung in listless clouds above the tarmac. Zoe was the one who spotted something through the hedge. She had a gift for finding things: birds’ nests, their mother’s calculator, a missing book, a secret.

“What’s that?” she demanded, stooping to peer through the tangled branches. The flash of red could have been poppies bordering the field, but the poppies had already lost their petals. Before her brothers could answer, she turned and ran back to the gate they had just passed.

Matthew and Duncan watched her go. Zoe brought her knees high and pumped her arms. Last sports day she had won the quarter mile by almost three seconds. As she reached the gate, Duncan, without a word, took off after her. A car sped by, the smooth engine noise undercut by a harsh rattle. Matthew looked at the sky, mostly blue with a fortress of cumulus clouds in the east, and gave up on being the responsible one who waited for their father. The two bags, his and Zoe’s, banged against the metal bars of the gate as he climbed over and jumped down onto the rutted ground. The field had recently been harvested, and circular bales of straw lay randomly across the dull gold stubble. In the middle of the field stood a magnificent oak tree in full leaf. He caught up with first Duncan, then Zoe.

From a distance it was still possible to believe that the boy was asleep, lying on the grassy border between hedge and stubble. “Christ,” whispered Zoe.

The closer they got to him, the slower they walked. None of them spoke. Glinting bluebottles and smaller flies circled the boy. His hair was dark, his skin very pale. He wore a deep blue shirt, a color Duncan would later call cobalt, black shorts, and what appeared to be long red socks. At the local private school, the younger boys wore bright red knee socks, and for the briefest instant, Zoe thought Oh, he’s in uniform. A few steps closer, and she grasped the nature of the red. His eyelids were pale with a delicate tracery of veins. Everything that happened, they all three later agreed, was only possible because of those closed lids.

His chest rose, fractionally, and fell, fractionally. With no one to tell them what to feel, they did not cry out, or exclaim.

Zoe tiptoed forward, knelt down at a cautious distance, and leaned over to touch his bare arm where it emerged below his shirtsleeve. His skin was reassuringly warm. He was a little older than her. Eighteen. Perhaps nineteen. “We need to get help,” she said.

But she was not going anywhere. She was gently stroking his bare arm.

Except for his clothes and his scarlet legs, Matthew thought, the boy could have been an illustration in a Victorian novel: The Weary Harvester. Rest after Toil. The Dreaming Poet. He told Duncan to go back to the road and stop a car. “Tell the driver someone’s hurt,” he said. “He needs an ambulance.”

Duncan had been staring at the boy, committing him detail by detail, color by color, to memory. Now, reluctantly, he acknowledged the inevitability of being the youngest. He ran back along the edge of the field, scrambled over the gate again, and stood by the side of the road. In a well-organized world this would have been the moment for their father to arrive, driving, as usual, a little too fast.

The first car, black, sleek, ignored his frantic waving.  So did the second. The third car, baby blue, the antenna bent at an awkward angle, slowed. Duncan stepped into the road, ready to explain. The man behind the wheel—he too was wearing a white shirt—was staring at him through the dull windscreen. And then, just as the car seemed about to stop, it accelerated, swerved around him—he glimpsed the number plate and a dent in the rear bumper—and disappeared. It would have stopped for Zoe, he thought. Or even for Matthew. He shouldn’t have let them send him to do this. But he had, and the beautiful boy was depending on him. At the sound of another car approaching, he planted himself in the middle of the road.

For a few scary seconds the car hurtled toward him. When the driver braked, he bent down at the window. “We found a boy in the field.” He pointed behind him. “He’s hurt.”

“Hurt how?” The woman pushed up her sunglasses as if the emergency demanded naked sight. Her eyes were a color Dun- can could only call colorless.

“I don’t know. My brother says he needs an ambulance.”

“Don’t move him. I’ll phone 999. Leave the gate of the field open so they’ll know which one.”

She did a U-turn in the gateway, and headed in the direction of the town.

Back in the field his sister was still stroking the boy’s arm, his brother kneeling on the other side of him, fanning away the flies with a blue school notebook. They did not speak as he approached; he sensed they had not spoken during his absence.

“A woman’s gone for help,” he said, and knelt beside Zoe. His shirt had pulled loose as he ran, and the hem grazed the grass. “What’s the matter with him? Did he fall?”

“Maybe,” Zoe said. While Duncan was summoning help, she had noticed that the boy’s shorts were torn in several places: two holes in one leg, one near the waist, one in the other leg. Last autumn her mother had lectured her and her friend Moira about how, at fifteen, they had to be careful. “Don’t walk around alone at night,” she had said. “Don’t accept lifts from strangers. If a grown-up starts behaving oddly, find an excuse to leave.”

“Oddly how?” Zoe had asked.

“Making remarks about your appearance, touching you.” Her mother waved her hand. “Making you feel weird.”

Alone, she and Moira had giggled away the warning, but now her mother’s words came back; she tried not to think about the torn fabric—what made the holes, what lay beneath. From beyond the hedge came the sounds of a car approaching, disappearing, then another. “Do we know him?” she asked.

“I don’t,” Matthew said. As he moved the notebook, the flies retreated with almost military precision and, with the same precision, returned. Everything was warm and frightening. The boy was alive, which meant he might die. He was not sure Zoe and Duncan understood that.

“Maybe he looks different?” Zoe persisted. “Perhaps we’ve seen him at the shops, or on the bus?”

Matthew was still shaking his head—that the boy’s life might have touched theirs only made the idea of his death more frightening—when Duncan spoke. If Zoe was the one who found things, their little brother was the one who noticed them: the different yellows of two egg yolks, the way a person’s lips twitched when they met him, the first snowdrops pushing up through the frosty grass, the curve of a dog’s eyebrows. Matthew had asked Zoe once if she thought Duncan was better at noticing things because he was adopted. No, she had said, be- cause he’s Duncan.

Now Duncan said, “I’ve seen him before, but I’m not sure where.”

Looking at the boy, he too thought of a picture, a painting his art teacher had shown him of a wide-eyed, cream-colored bull climbing into the sky with a girl on his back. Zeus had courted Europa by breathing out a saffron crocus from his dark nostrils. Who could resist a flower born of such sweetness? Not Europa. She had clambered onto his back, thinking to ride him around the meadow, garland him with flowers, only to find the bull carrying her skyward toward unknown terror, or unknown bliss. Had something like that happened to the boy?

“If his eyes were open,” Zoe said, “I bet you’d remember.”

If his eyes were open, Matthew thought, we would not be kneeling here. He would be in pain, and we couldn’t bear it. How long had they been here? Ten minutes? Twenty? He glanced over his shoulder at the nearest bale. Last autumn he and his friend Benjamin had carried a ladder out to the field behind Benjamin’s house, climbed up onto a stack of bales, and shared a beer. It had been oddly satisfying, sitting on the prickly straw, watching the lights of the town appear. Now, still fanning the boy, he edged closer. His left knee landed on something soft: a spiraling strip, maybe eight inches long, of brownish apple peel. He tossed it in the direction of the oak tree.

“You’re going to be all right,” Zoe said.

The boy gave a small sigh. His lips moved. The sigh became a word.

Each of them caught it. No more words followed.

Two swallows swooped past, skimming the air above their heads. Briefly Duncan imagined the scene as if he were riding not on a bull but on the back of one of the birds, looking down at the boy lying in the grass, his blue shirt and black shorts and red legs ending in black trainers, slightly dusty, pointing at the sky. And the three of them in their white shirts, kneeling beside him, keeping vigil. When he descended again, it was with a longing to memorize every detail of the boy. He had seldom had license to examine another person so closely. Years later he would re- member him more vividly than men and women he had loved, friends he had adored.

His hair was shoulder length, wavy, the brown of soil after rain; his forehead was high; his nose straight with an almost invisible bump at the bridge; his nostrils, against his pale skin, were faintly pink; his lips were parted, the upper a little fuller; his ears, shell- like, lay close to his head; the left had a tiny dark hole in the lobe. A thin silver chain lay across the hollow between his collarbones. He wore a watch, the black leather strap faded and cracked. His hands were open, palms up, his fingers gently curved.

Duncan was still itemizing the boy when there was a commotion in the road: the sounds of a vehicle stopping, doors opening, voices, and then three men hurrying down the edge of the field, one carrying a stretcher.

From The Boy in the Field; Copyright © 2020 By Margot Livesey. Reprinted here with permission of Harper Collins. 

Jul 30 2020

28mins

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Daphne Merkin: “22 Minutes of Unconditional Love”

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Daphne Merkin discusses what normative means, the concept of a normal looking life, and her new novel, “22 Minutes of Unconditional Love”. Is the life of protagonist Judith Stone what she wanted or what she has—and what kind of life should she lead? And what about alluring obsessions? A novel written over thirty years and strained to its essence.

An excerpt from“22 Minutes of Unconditional Love,” by Daphne Merkin.

In this story there is no final scene, no decisive change of heart or firm resolve so much as a furious inner struggle—a struggle that has left no discernible traces yet has marked me as surely as bruises after a fall.

Because there is no end to the hunger for unconditional love and no end to my belief that he was the one to give it to me. I have no stopwatch to measure how long the experience of sexual pleasure—of losing yourself—lasts at any particular time: it could be ten minutes, or fifteen, or twenty-two. How do you measure the crest of a wave? All I know is that when it vanishes, it leaves in its wake a devouring appetite for more.

To this day I can’t forget how he was always touching me in bed, acting as though my skin came as a surprise. “You feel so soft,” he said. “So smooth.” Nothing very original in that, I realize, and yet coming from him I felt it as a lovely succumbing, a weakening of his ordinary resistance.

Then there is this: I am a writer, a believer in the powers of art to shape experience so that others might recognize something of themselves in it. Except when it comes to my own life, it appears. I have decided to tell this story now, after all these years, as a way of forcing it to the finish line. I am still confused about how I got to that place to begin with and how I got out without going mad, howling like a wolf. I think it had something to do, despite all evidence to the contrary, with some intact shred of a life force. I willed him out of my life in order to pursue a more sane existence, one that would include a husband and children—a daughter I would bring up to feel full in herself, without vast absences or ravaging needs. But it was just that: an effort of will rather than a natural ending—only a sense that if I wanted to survive, I would have to move on.

Meanwhile, the efficient little clock on my desk keeps marking the passage of time. If you pick up this clock—a practically weightless black Braun traveling clock, with white hour and minute hands and a yellow second hand—and hold it close to your ear, you can hear a faint, even tick. So many days, months, and years have intervened, not to mention a marriage, the daughter I wished for, and another child on the way, you’d think he’d have no place in my thoughts anymore. And for periods of time he doesn’t, only to alight on my nerve endings once again. It has to do, I imagine, with the tedium, the worn routines that are an inescapable part of domestic life. Some habit of my husband’s that I have tired of, such as the way he blinks his eyes rapidly when someone disagrees with him. Or the way my daughter puts up an argument about something perfectly reasonable, like getting into her pajamas before bedtime.

Suddenly a space opens up, a wedge of restlessness mixed with longing, and Howard Rose walks back in.

From 22 Minutes of Unconditional Love; Copyright © 2020 By Daphne Merkin. Reprinted here with permission of Macmillan Publishers. 

Jul 23 2020

28mins

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Zadie Smith: “On Beauty”

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From the archives: obliquely about "On Beauty", this intense, abstract conversation is about what a novel is and how it represents a particular culture, and about what a culture is and how it can create the illusion of identity. The search for identity, Smith maintains, is a delusion. The search for beauty and truth depends upon destroying the lie of identity.

A quote from the original episode:
"But the problem with readers, the idea we're given of reading is that the model of a reader is the person watching a film, or watching television. So the greatest principle is, "I should sit here and I should be entertained." And the more classical model, which has been completely taken away, is the idea of a reader as an amateur musician. An amateur musician who sits at the piano, has a piece of music, which is the work, made by somebody they don't know, who they probably couldn't comprehend entirely, and they have to use their skills to play this piece of music. The greater the skill, the greater the gift that you give the artist and that the artist gives you. That's the incredibly unfashionable idea of reading. And yet when you practice reading, and you work at a text, it can only give you what you put into it. It's an old moral, but it's completely true."

This episode originally aired on November 9, 2006.

Jul 16 2020

28mins

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Alex Halberstadt: "Young Heroes of the Soviet Union: A Memoir and a Reckoning"

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History, autobiography, travelogue—a hybrid form—"Young Heroes of the Soviet Union: A Memoir and a Reckoning", by Alex Halberstadt, considers what it means to be a gay Jewish refugee from the USSR. Halberstadt came to America at age nine and returned to Russia to meet his father, who he barely remembered, and his grandfather, one of Stalin’s personal bodyguards and a member of the KGB, who he’d never met. Halberstadt discusses the idea of recurrence:  history returning to haunt him.

An excerpt from “Young Heroes of the Soviet Union: A Memoir and a Reckoning" by Alex Halberstadt.

1

The Bodyguard

The plane pitched to the left and began to descend. A diorama flashed into view through a break in the cloud cover: low cabins standing in puddles of pea-green grass, a pond and a sluiceway and some obsolete factory buildings dreaming in pastureland. Then fog rolled in from somewhere below. Sheremetyevo airport, a linoleum labyrinth lit dimly by fluorescents, was watched over by soldiers barely out of their teens who leaned languidly against the walls, assault rifles slung over their shoulders. I waited beside a church group from Michigan, half a dozen families in pristine white sneakers who joked heartily with one another, as though they were waiting out a lull at the Department of Motor Vehicles back home. Just then, their American sense of inviolability reassured me.

My case of nerves, I knew, was shared by many Soviet immigrants returning to the motherland: the worry that the gates won’t open again when it’s time to leave. The customs inspectors’ opaque, somehow familiar faces—faces professionally immune to interpretation—told me that liberties I hadn’t questioned the previous morning were now granted and revoked at the whim of these men, and men in other, different uniforms. In my Levi’s and windbreaker, I blended in with the church group, but I was a returning refugee, a category of traveler the customs men regarded with suspicion and possibly envy. I shifted my weight from one foot to the other and strained to pick up scraps of conversation. When my turn came, I stepped up to the window and slid my passport under the glass. The inspector, fiftyish with a combover, didn’t look up. When his eyes moved across the column of text that read, “Place of Birth: Russia,” the corners of his mouth widened into a foreshadowing of a grin. He stamped the passport, slid it back and, looking up at last, said, “Welcome home, Mr. Halberstadt.”

Later that afternoon, my father and I sat in his kitchen, smoking. I’d quit cigarettes in college, but I pulled on one of his Winstons, watching the smoke drift to the ceiling, where it was forming a storm cloud. My father had been smoking since he was sixteen. He was remarried and had a college-age daughter and had never recovered completely from the heart attack he’d suffered nearly fifteen years earlier. “Why don’t you quit smoking?” I prodded. He said he would quit “when things get easier” and that he was “crazy about cigarettes.” We both knew things wouldn’t get easier and that he wasn’t going to get any less crazy, so I lit up in guilty solidarity.

My father liked a brand of vodka called Peter the Great, and on that first day in Moscow I drank enough to begin liking it, too. My father and I hadn’t seen each other in seven years. I wondered if I’d recognize him, thinking of the way some men in their late fifties begin to look elderly almost overnight. But my father looked as I remembered him, still handsome and confoundingly fit, only his temples were grayer and the lines around the eyes more pronounced.

We spent nearly the entire day talking in the kitchen, but to me our voices sounded tentative and oddly formal. Since I’d left Russia, we’d spoken occasionally over a sputtering long-distance phone line and met a handful of times, adding up to maybe three or four weeks spent together over two and a half decades. Unlike that of most fathers and sons, our relationship hadn’t been worn into a recognizable shape by familiarity. We were closely related strangers.

To my frustration, I once again became quiet and strangely passive around my father—a condition exacerbated by my shortage of Russian words to describe adult emotions. Well, not a shortage of words, exactly. What I lacked was the ability to put them together in ways that enabled adult modes of conversation: irony, doubt, tenderness, reserve. And so in my father’s presence I spoke less than I did otherwise and was cowed by my silence, which in turn made me feel not only mute but dumb.

He asked, as he always did, whether I’d seen any movies lately. My father liked old films enough to make them his livelihood: he dubbed classic Hollywood and European films into Russian and sold the not entirely legal VHS tapes and DVDs at a storefront in one of the newish strip malls that ringed Moscow. Sometimes he was paid—by scrap-metal magnates and natural-gas-company lawyers—to assemble private video collections in loose-leaf binders with titles like “The New Wave” and “Early Hitchcock.” He had been an academic of sorts once but was a business owner now in the fledgling post-perestroika middle class. We shared the fondness for old movies, particularly American ones, and after a few glasses of vodka he began to recite lines of film dialogue in hilariously accented English: “Whoa, take her easy there, Pilgrim.” He told me about The Band Wagon, an MGM musical from 1953. It had a dance scene he liked, filmed on a set that looked like Central Park. Halfway through, my father said, you can tell that Cyd Charisse and Fred Astaire have fallen in love, and just then his eyes looked excitable and impossibly young, the way they did when I was a child. I always liked how easily he laughed. When he did, our awkwardness and odd formality gave way to something like joy—both unfamiliar and childishly primal—and I could tell he felt it too. But after a moment or two, a self-consciousness intruded and the elation was gone.

When I asked about Vassily, my father became evasive and glum, and I said nothing more until I remembered that I came to Moscow to find out about the two of them. “There isn’t much to tell,” he said, looking away. “It’s all pretty boring.” In spite of my discomfort with Russian, I knew that I had him pinned, there behind the chipboard table in his kitchen. He responded to my questions with gestures of bodily discomfort. His eyes beseeched me to change the subject, but this was important, I told him, I needed to know. He winced and lit another cigarette, chain-smoking irritably in silence. When he spoke finally, it felt like the giving of a heavy door.

My father’s first memory of his father was watching him count money. They lived in a communal prerevolutionary apartment near the Hotel Metropol, a few steps from Red Square, alongside families of other state security officers. Vassily coaxed the bills into neat stacks and laid them gingerly into a shoe box that he kept on a high closet shelf, along with his pistol. He never quite figured out how to spend his extravagant major’s salary and lavished much of the money on clothes, for which he had a keen eye, ordering dozens of monogrammed shirts and gabardine suits from the Kremlin tailors. My grandmother Tamara designed women’s clothes for an atelier that furnished the city’s dress shops. When the two of them went out, they looked like one of the smart modern couples from the pages of Harper’s Bazaar, a magazine Tamara pried away from a colleague of Vassily’s who lived upstairs and whose job it was to monitor foreign mail. It was 1949 and my father was three or four years old.

It occurred to me that my father’s was a decidedly uncommon set of memories for someone growing up in Moscow in the late 1940s. Ninety percent of Moscow’s apartments had no heat, and nearly half had no plumbing or running water; in winter, people going out for water carried axes along with their buckets, to hack through the ice that grew around the public water pumps; workers stacked firewood brought from the countryside on street corners in piles that sometimes grew taller than a building; siblings went to school on alternate days because they shared a single pair of shoes.

But the Kremlin elite never prided itself on being egalitarian. The war was over. Vassily and Tamara went dancing, vacationed on the Black Sea. At home, my father remembered, she covered every surface with red and white carnations in cut-crystal vases, floral bouffants that gave the room the look of a funeral parlor. They dined on caviar and smoked sturgeon sent over as part of Vassily’s rations. On New Year’s Eve—the secular Soviet Christmas—Tamara put out porcelain bowls filled with pomegranates and oranges and decorated the tree with tinsel and crystal bells, arranging presents and sometimes a pineapple under the bottom branches. My father tore the wrapping open after supper on the thirty-first, and after he was put to bed, the neighbors gathered around the radio console in the hallway and waited for midnight, toasting the New Year with a sparkling wine labeled Soviet Champagne. Moscow was rising from the wartime mire.

Excerpted from YOUNG HEROES OF THE SOVIET UNION: A Memoir and a Reckoning. Copyright © 2020 by Alex Haberstadt. Published by Random House, an imprint of Penguin Random House.

Jul 09 2020

28mins

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Scott Spencer: “An Ocean Without a Shore”

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Kip Woods thinks this about his friend Thaddeus Kaufman: if only, if only, if only. If only they could be together. Scott Spencer’s new novel, “An Ocean Without a Shore,” is about a life steeped in unfulfilled desires. It is a story of an intense and unrequited love strengthened by yearning and dreaming. A continuation of characters introduced in Spencer’s previous novel, “River Under the Road,” and evocative of his cherished classic, “Endless Love.”

An excerpt from “An Ocean Without a Shore,” by Scott Spencer.

Other than business trips and an occasional holiday abroad, I had been living in New York City continuously since graduating college. I had dated about seventy women in that time, changed address five times. I had probably spent a million dollars on restaurant food, and if you were to categorize everything from theater tickets to hand jobs as entertainment, I had spent close to another million either entertaining myself or relieving myself of a loneliness so deep and so ferocious that I think I would have otherwise gone mad.

In New York, I was known and not known by the same people. Some of the women I dated conversed among themselves and saw “remarkable similarities” in their experience with me. The best I could have hoped for out of those comparisons of notes was their coming to a collective conclusion that I was a Real Gentleman. I certainly wasn’t “handsy,” as I heard one of my co- workers described. I certainly didn’t act as if allowing me to take care of the check or buy the tickets entitled me to intimate contact. If any of the women had expected real physical pleasure or perhaps even a lasting relationship, they may have felt some disappointment and irritation. By and large the women with whom I shared dinners and day trips, visits to museums, botanical gardens, flea markets, street fairs, lectures, readings, plays, concerts, and cozy evenings at home trying out recipes and watching movies were themselves highly desirable, busy and very accomplished— writers, film editors, actresses, lawyers, bankers, journalists— with no pressing need for me or anyone to save or shape their lives. I was quite sure they were as content as I was to enjoy the time we spent together and part friends before anything romantic occurred. I suspected that a few of them had similar agendas to mine, were closeted or otherwise conflicted, and wanted someone of the opposite gender to be seen with at one of New York’s innumerable fund-raising dinners. I was a presentable escort to sit with at the table their company purchased to support some worthy cause, such as cancer research or the Central Park Conservancy. My company regularly bought two tables for ten to support the American Heart Association (Adler’s father had died at the age of forty-two of heart failure), as well as galas for The Paris Review, cystic fibrosis, the Alvin Ailey dance company, and Meals on Wheels, paying as much as $50,000 per table. We at Adler were expected to fill the twenty seats with our spouses or significant others. I have to admit that for those evenings—and there were many of them, many—I took pains to be seen with a woman who was not only accomplished and vivacious, but who had a shot of being the most beautiful woman in the room.

The thing about New York is that when you first move there, it seems like an impossibly immense place with so many lives simultaneously unspooling, so many conflicting realities, that if you don’t do anything wildly strange and egregious you can live your life for the most part rather privately. And then one day New York doesn’t seem nearly so huge and complex and the thousands upon thousands who passed through your life, people you would in all likelihood never see again start to appear a second time, and a third— the cabdriver seems familiar, the fellow delivering your take-out lunch calls you by your first name, and Sean Tee, whose ad you saw in The Village Voice, comes to your apartment and you both realize he’s been there before, the previous time as Billy McDougal.

Wasn’t San Francisco the gayest city in the country, possibly the gayest in the world? Home of Harvey Milk, the Castro, a total bacchanal of a Halloween parade that made the one in New York seem discreet. Once, crossing Bleecker Street carrying home in an insulated sack a rotisserie chicken from Jefferson Market for my dinner, I had to contend with the parade as it rainbowed and glittered by a mere block from my apartment. I waited for a break in the procession of leather and feather and cowboy hats, Tin Men, Glendas, Spocks, and throngs of happy homosexuals who had not bothered to don their gay apparel but just enjoyed strolling through the city streets with twenty thousand of their closest friends, all to the accompaniment of drums and police whistles, tambourines and cheers. Freedom was in the air, freedom and joy and sorrow and survival.

History was passing me by.

I kept my head down, but my face must have betrayed me. A tall parader made even taller in high heels, fishnet stockings, spangled miniskirt, and a headdress spewing feathers stepped out of the parade’s flow and touched me on the elbow. A giant, something out of the Bread and Puppet Theater.

“Come on, honey,” he said. “Don’t be shy. Join the fun.”

What drew him to me? I was not the only one watching the parade from the curbside. There were thousands of us along Bleecker Street, fathers with kids riding their shoulders, old gay men wiping away tears, tourists with their cameras. But this towering marcher in a spangled skirt touched me with his long blue fingernail.

No thank you, I tried to say, but all I could do was shake my head no. He gave me a look— Really? Are you sure?— and on an impulse I stepped off the curb and fell in behind him, joining the weirdly holy procession, swinging my insulated bag of take-out chicken like a censor. I kept my eyes on my recruiter’s back. His dark skin glistened with sweat and glitter. My heart felt as if it were looking for a way out of my chest. I told myself I would take ten steps and then bail, cut through the marchers and go home, but ten steps turned to twenty, and twenty to thirty, and before I could peel away I had walked from Tenth Street to Perry on the gushing artery of Bleecker Street. At last, I said goodbye to the man in front of me with a quick light tap on his shoulder blade and cut a pathway through the parade muttering my excuses as I made my way onto the sidewalk.

From An Ocean Without a Shore; Copyright © 2020 By Scott Spencer. Reprinted here with permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers

Jul 02 2020

28mins

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Brit Bennett: The Vanishing Half

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Brit Bennett pushes questions of race and color to their extremes in her new novel, The Vanishing Half. A three-generational novel that is anything but old-fashioned, a central topic concerns identity fused with acting and lying. The main characters wonder what defines happiness. In this book’s case, it makes for great reading. Bennett discusses creating real people and not just types—forging a kaleidoscopic story about people and communities.

An excerpt from “The Vanishing Half” by Brit Bennett.

One

The morning one of the lost twins returned to Mallard, Lou LeBon ran to the diner to break the news, and even now, many years later, everyone remembers the shock of sweaty Lou pushing through the glass doors, chest heaving, neckline darkened with his own effort. The barely awake customers clamored around him, ten or so, although more would lie and say that they’d been there too, if only to pretend that this once, they’d witnessed something truly exciting. In that little farm town, nothing surprising ever happened, not since the Vignes twins had disappeared. But that morning in April 1968, on his way to work, Lou spotted Desiree Vignes walking along Partridge Road, carrying a small leather suitcase. She looked exactly the same as when she’d left at sixteen— still light, her skin the color of sand barely wet. Her hipless body reminding him of a branch caught in a strong breeze. She was hurrying, her head bent, and— Lou paused here, a bit of a showman— she was holding the hand of a girl, seven or eight, and black as tar. “Blueblack,” he said. “Like she flown direct from Africa.”

Lou’s Egg House splintered into a dozen different conversations. The line cook wondered if it had been Desiree after all, since Lou was turning sixty in May and still too vain to wear his eyeglasses. The waitress said that it had to be— even a blind man could spot a Vignes girl and it certainly couldn’t have been that other one. The diners, abandoning grits and eggs on the counter, didn’t care about that Vignes foolishness— who on earth was the dark child? Could she possibly be Desiree’s? 

“Well, who else’s could it be?” Lou said. He grabbed a handful of napkins from the dispenser,
dabbing his damp forehead.
“Maybe it’s an orphan that got took in.”
“I just don’t see how nothin that black coulda come out Desiree.”
“Desiree seem like the type to take in no orphan to you?”

Of course she didn’t. She was a selfish girl. If they remembered anything about Desiree, it was that and most didn’t recall much more. The twins had been gone fourteen years, nearly as long as anyone had ever known them. Vanished from bed after the Founder’s Day dance, while their mother slept right down the hall. One morning, the twins crowded in front of their bathroom mirror, four identical girls fussing with their hair. The next, the bed was empty, the covers pulled back like any other day, taut when Stella made it, crumpled when Desiree did. The town spent all morning searching for them, calling their names through the woods, wondering stupidly if they had been taken. Their disappearance seemed as sudden as the rapture, all of Mallard the sinners left behind.

Naturally, the truth was neither sinister nor mystical; the twins soon surfaced in New Orleans, selfish girls running from responsibility. They wouldn’t stay away long. City living would tire them out. They’d run out of money and gall and come sniffling back to their mother’s porch. But they never returned again. Instead, after a year, the twins scattered, their lives splitting as evenly as their shared egg. Stella became white and Desiree married the darkest man she could find. Now she was back, Lord knows why. Homesick, maybe. Missing her mother after all those years or wanting to flaunt that dark daughter of hers. In Mallard, nobody married dark. Nobody left either, but Desiree had already done that. Marrying a dark man and dragging his blueblack child all over town was one step too far.

In Lou’s Egg House, the crowd dissolved, the line cook snapping on his hairnet, the waitress counting nickels on the table, men in coveralls gulping coffee before heading out to the refinery. Lou leaned against the smudged window, staring out at the road. He ought to call Adele Vignes. Didn’t seem right for her to be ambushed by her own daughter, not after everything she’d already been through. Now Desiree and that dark child. Lord. He reached for the phone. 

“You think they fixin to stay?” the line cook asked.
“Who knows? She sure seem in a hurry though,” Lou said. “Wonder what she hurryin to. Look
right past me, didn’t wave or nothin.”
“Uppity. And what reason she got to be uppity?”
“Lord,” Lou said. “I never seen a child that black before.”

It was a strange town.

Mallard, named after the ring- necked ducks living in the rice fields and marshes. A town that, like any other, was more idea than place. The idea arrived to Alphonse Decuir in 1848, as he stood in the sugarcane fields he’d inherited from the father who’d once owned him. The father now dead, the now- freed son wished to build something on those acres of land that would last for centuries to come. A town for men like him, who would never be accepted as white but refused to be treated like Negroes. A third place. His mother, rest her soul, had hated his lightness; when he was a boy, she’d shoved him under the sun, begging him to darken. Maybe that’s what made him first dream of the town. Lightness, like anything inherited at great cost, was a lonely gift. He’d married a mulatto even lighter than himself. She was pregnant then with their first child, and he imagined his children’s children’s children, lighter still, like a cup of coffee steadily diluted with cream. A more perfect Negro. Each generation lighter than the one before. 

Soon others came. Soon idea and place became inseparable, and Mallard carried throughout the rest of St. Landry Parish. Colored people whispered about it, wondered about it. White people couldn’t believe it even existed. When St. Catherine’s was built in 1938, the diocese sent over a young priest from Dublin who arrived certain that he was lost. Didn’t the bishop tell him that Mallard was a colored town? Well, who were these people walking about? Fair and blonde and redheaded, the darkest ones no swarthier than a Greek? Was this who counted for colored in America, who whites wanted to keep separate? Well, how could they ever tell the difference?

By the time the Vignes twins were born, Alphonse Decuir was dead, long gone. But his great- great- great- granddaughters inherited his legacy, whether they wanted to or not. Even Desiree, who complained before every Founder’s Day picnic, who rolled her eyes when the founder was mentioned in school, as if none of that business had anything to do with her. This would stick after the twins disappeared. How Desiree never wanted to be a part of the town that was her birthright. How she felt that you could flick away history like shrugging a hand off your shoulder. You can escape a town, but you cannot escape blood. Somehow, the Vignes twins believed themselves capable of both.

And yet, if Alphonse Decuir could have strolled through the town he’d once imagined, he would have been thrilled by the sight of his great- great- great- granddaughters. Twin girls, creamy skin, hazel eyes, wavy hair. He would have marveled at them. For the child to be a little more perfect than the parents. What could be more wonderful than that?

***

Copyright © 2020 by Brit Bennett 

Jun 25 2020

28mins

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Horacio Castellanos Moya: Senselessness

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The co-producer of Bookworm, Shawn Michael Sullivan, was able to rebroadcast one of his favorite conversations, between Michael Silverblatt and Horacio Castellanos Moya, regarding Senselessness. Not even difficult to imagine in America these days: Senselessness is about a person’s psychology impacted through reading about a nation’s atrocities. Senselessness depicts a complicated mentality that contradicts itself: it’s discussed that it’s easier to appreciate literature than to endure the factual reports of torture and terror. The psychology created by terrorism is difficult to judge—Castellanos Moya says that perhaps the more we suffer the more we learn about the life that we are losing.

Jun 18 2020

28mins

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Fowzia Karimi: Above Us the Milky Way

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Fowzia Karimi speaks about the art of the novel, and designing Above Us the Milky Way. The storytelling structure is twenty-six letters, the alphabet, with each letter allowing the story to unfold piece by piece, stories weaving in and out; Karimi says a formal structure inspires an experience of the ecstatic. The seven major characters, family members, two parents and five young daughters, flee from Afghanistan after bombs start filling the sky; exiled in the land of the sun, California, the ghosts of the war exile in their memories. Karimi’s love for storytelling comes from Afghani fairy tales she heard as a child, which permeate this richly inventive novel. She speaks of her admiration for rigor in the arts, and being a visual person who pushed the boundary of a book as an object. She put everything into this book, on every level, diving deeply into her own sense of being, and it shows, marvellously.

An excerpt from “Above Us the Milky Way” by Fowzia Karimi.

A

The alphabet. A set of letters arranged in a particular order. A set of letters that combine endlessly to form words on the page. What books are made of. What the sisters are made of.

And these letters are set in their particular order as if a strong force runs through the alphabet, locking the symbols in place. And yet, the letters rearrange in inexhaustible combinations to write the words that give positive form to the formless. Like little magicians, the letters are forever in two places at once: bound in their fixed positions–for who could reorder the sequence of an alphabet?—and leaving their posts to form this or that word. The five sisters are also lined up in a precise order, oldest to  youngest, held in place by a logic and a force born of nature and chance. And like the letters of the alphabet, the sisters arrange and rearrange themselves in endless amalgamations to give form to what is unspoken, and meaning to the ordinary.

A,              the            land            where              I               was              born. 

A,               the              shore              upon              which               I              landed.


A, for ALL: for a story in its entirety. For how it begins, for how into it chaos or pain or desire enters, for what ensues within it, for where it takes us, for how all falls into place at its conclusion, and for the state in which it afterward leaves us. I too am a reader and I understand the need to consume all. I have this appetite. Moreover, I respect the boundaries set up by the two covers. And yet here, in this book, they are no more than lids, no more than two soft curtains opening on a scene. Yes, I too crave the arc. But you will not find one here. The only way forward is through the alphabet.

4                                            ABOVE US THE MILKY WAY

                                                              airplane

When they left the old land, the sisters kissed their grandmother’s spotted hands and did not pull away their faces from her moist, uneven breath. They hugged their many-aunts, kissing three times their warm cheeks; they bowed the crowns of their heads to their many-uncles’ hands and lips, nodding respectfully as the uncles listed the do’s and do-not’s; and they spoke timidly and in whispers with the cousins they knew as intimately as they did each other, avoiding their eyes and their questions, secretly holding the same unanswerable questions in their own minds. The flight of stairs to the mouth of the waiting airplane was steep, the metal cold, and the lofty view it afforded them indifferent to their many-questions: where, how long, and what for? The sisters looked down silently yet intently at the gathered tribe who stood twelve long and three deep, in heels and in coats, lipsticked and combed, smiling awkwardly

Copyright © 2020 by Fowzia Karimi

Jun 11 2020

28mins

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Mark Z. Danielewski: The Little Blue Kite

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Mark Z. Danielewski’s The Little Blue Kite is a generous and big-hearted children’s book about creating a spacious mind, with room for others. A kind and decent protagonist, a kid aware of his own moods, learns to recognize and fly above fear; Danielewski says he wants his book to fly above words. It is a personal book that operates in its own cycle, with a universal theme. It is a children’s book by the writer of House of Leaves (parents should enjoy it too).

Jun 04 2020

28mins

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Edited by André Naffis-Sahely The Heart of a Stranger: An Anthology of Exile Literature

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Anthologist André Naffis-Sahely says he provided a historical perspective to The Heart of a Stranger: An Anthology of Exile Literature. From Ancient Egypt to contemporary poetry, six continents, over a hundred contributors, drawn from twenty-four languages, Naffis-Sahely calls it a platform for writers who need wider exposure. It is unexplored world literature that is not part of any canon but that includes the classics; it is moving political poetry that is not merely political—as beautiful and moving as any poetry at all. It is lost souls restoring their sense of home.

An excerpt from The Heart of a Stranger: An Anthology of Exile Literature. 

Civilization begets exile; in fact, being banished from one’s home lies at the root of our earliest stories, whether human or divine [...] and my aim with this anthology was to produce a miniature history of humanity as seen through the prism of exile. In fact, if our earliest texts are any indication, the very concept of recorded history — and literature — appears to spring out of the necessity of exile, preserving in our minds what had been bloodily erased on earth.
____________________________________________________

Although Ovid taught us to see the “Exile” as a whiny, withered husk forever longing for the branch it was unhappily torn from, I wanted this anthology to showcase an alternative genealogy of misfits, rebels, heretics, contrarians, activists and revolutionaries. Exile, this anthology argues, can be defiant, like Emma Goldman aboard the USS Buford, or Leon Trotsky’s stirring “Letter to the Workers of the USSR”, written months before Stalin’s pickaxe found him in Mexico City; it can be horrifying, as the Polish legionnaires learnt while fighting to oppress a people they knew nothing about in Haiti; it can be depressing, like Giacomo Leopardi’s poem on Italy’s sorry state following the tumults of the Napoleonic Wars; however, it can speak of heroism, like the sacrifices made by poets such as Yannis Ritsos and Abdellatif Laâbi, all of whom spent long years in prison for their peaceful activism, or for their 'crimes of opinion'.

Excerpted fromThe Heart of a Stranger: An Anthology of Exile Literature. Copyright © 2020 All rights reserved.

May 28 2020

28mins

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Victoria Chang: Love, Love (Part Two)

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In show two of two, Victoria Chang discusses Love, Love, her children’s novel written in verse—poetry written for children. Imagistic, literary, and philosophical writing is made easy and legible, clear and direct, to demonstrate how directly language can express one’s rich inner world. A ten year-old Chinese-American girl lives in a Detroit suburb, and Love, Love delivers the writer’s personal experience.

An excerpt from “Love,” by Victoria Chang.

Frontal Lobe

My   Father’s   Frontal    Lobe—died
unpeacefully of a stroke on June 24,
2009 at Scripps  Memorial Hospital in
San Diego, California.  Born January 20,
1940, the frontal lobe enjoyed a good
life.  The frontal  lobe  loved being  the
boss.  It tried to talk again but someone
put a bag over it.  When the frontal
lobe died, it sucked in its lips like a
window pulled shut.  At the funeral for
his words, my father wouldn’t stop
talking and his love passed through me,
fell onto the ground that wasn’t there. 
I could hear someone stomping their
feet.  The body is as confusing as
language—was his frontal lobe having a
tantrum or dancing?  When I took my
father’s phone away, his words died in
the plastic coffin.  At the funeral for his
words, we argued about my
miscarriage. It’s not really a baby, he
said.  I ran out of words, stomped out
to shake the dead baby awake.  I
thought of the tech who put the wand
down, quietly left the room when she
couldn’t find the heartbeat.  I
understood then that darkness is falling
without an end.  That darkness is not
the absorption of color but the
absorption of language.

Copyright © 2020 by Victoria Chang. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on March 3, 2020 by the Academy of American Poets.

May 21 2020

28mins

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Victoria Chang: Obit (Part One)

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In show one of two, Victoria Chang discusses writing poetry that gets close to human feeling, while knowing that language will never be able to get to the entirety of that feeling. Written after her mother died, Obit, her new book, is an inch from sorrow; it’s a remarkable book for anyone dealing with grief (as we all are during the pandemic). Obit is as interested in consolation and acceptance as it is in the fearsome expression of the unbearable aspects of grief.

An excerpt from “Obit,” by Victoria Chang.

Ambition

Ambition—died on August 3, 2015, a
sudden death. I buried ambition in the
forest, next to distress. They used to
take walks together until ambition
pushed distress off the embankment.
Now, they put a bracelet around my
father’s ankle. The alarm rings when
he gets too close to the door. His
ambitious nature makes him walk to
the door a lot. When the alarm rings,
he gets distressed. He remembers that
he wants to find my house. He thinks
he can find my house. His fingerprints
have long vanished from my house.
Some criminals put their fingers on
electric coils of a stove to erase their
fingerprints. But it only makes them
easier to find. They found my father in
the middle of the road last month, still
like a bulbless lamp, unable to recall its
function, confused like the moon. At
the zoo, a great bald eagle sits in a
small cage because of a missing wing.
Its remaining wing is grief. Above the
eagle,  a   bird  flying  is  the  eagle’s
memory and its prey, the future.

Copyright © 2018 by Victoria Chang. Originally published in West Branch. Used with the permission of the poet.

The Clock

The Clock—died on June 24, 2009 and
it was untimely.  How many times my
father has failed the clock test.  Once I
heard a scientist with Alzheimer’s on
the radio, trying to figure out why he
could no longer draw a clock.  It had to
do with the superposition of three
types.  The hours represented by 1-12,
the  minutes  where  a  1  no  longer
represents  1  but  a  5,  and  a  2  now
represents 10, then the second hand
that measures 1 to 60.  I sat at the
stoplight and thought of the clock, its
perfect circle and its superpositions, all
the layers of complication on a plane of
thought, yet the healthy read the clock
in one single instant without a second
thought.  I think about my father and
his lack of first thoughts, how every
thought is a second or third or fourth
thought, unable to locate the first most
important thought.  I wonder about the
man on the radio and how far his brain
has degenerated since.  Marvel at how
far  our  brains  allow  language  to
wander  without  looking  back  but
knowing where the pier is.   If you
unfold an origami swan, and flatten the
paper, is the paper sad because it has
seen the shape of the swan or does it
aspire towards flatness, a life without
creases?  My father is the paper.  He
remembers the swan but can’t name it. 
He no longer knows the paper swan
represents an animal swan.  His brain is
the water the animal swan once swam
in, holds everything, but when thawed,
all the fish disappear.  Most of the
words we say have something to do
with fish.  And when they’re gone,
they’re gone.

Copyright © 2018 by Victoria Chang. Originally published in Kenyon Review. Used with the permission of the poet.

May 14 2020

28mins

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Benjamin Moser: Sontag: Her Life and Work

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Benjamin Moser recently won a Pulitzer Prize for his biography Sontag: Her Life and Work.

In this show from the archives, he talks about Susan Sontag‘s ideology: reading more books, going to more plays, traveling more, learning more, taking learning seriously, and taking culture seriously. Sontag: Her Life and Work is interested in the writing and ideas of Susan Sontag; attacking the philistines and treasuring knowledge.

You can listen to the original episode here.

May 07 2020

28mins

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Daniel Kehlmann: Tyll

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Daniel Kehlmann describes his new novel, Tyll, as dark, frightening, and murky—in a good way. The lead character is a mythic, famous folkloric jester, Tyll Eulenspiegel, a seventeenth-century king of pranksters, capable of as much amusement as detriment. A traveling entertainer, tightrope walker, juggler, singer and dancer, Tyll journeys through a continent devastated by the Thirty Years’ War. Kehlmann discusses early modernity, its lack of hygiene, and sending his imagination into a past he researched. This novel of surreal entertainment is a jester itself. 

An excerpt from Tyll by Daniel Kehlmann.

Kings in Winter

It was November. The wine supply was exhausted, and because the well in the garden was filthy, they drank nothing but milk. Since they could no longer afford candles, the whole court went to bed in the evening with the sun. The state of affairs was not good, yet there were still princes who would die for Liz. Recently, one of them had been here in The Hague, Christian von Braunschweig, and had promised her to have pour dieu et pour elle embroidered on his standard, and afterward, he had sworn fervently, he would win or die for her. He was an excited hero, so moved by himself that tears came to his eyes. Friedrich had patted him reassuringly on the shoulder, and she had given him her handkerchief, but then he had burst into tears once again, so overwhelmed was he by the thought of possessing a handkerchief of hers. She had given him a royal blessing, and, deeply stirred, he had gone on his way.

Naturally, he would not accomplish it, neither for God nor for her. This prince had few soldiers and no money, nor was he particularly clever. It would take men of a different caliber to defeat Wallenstein, someone like the Swedish king, say, who had recently come down on the Empire like a storm and had so far won all the battles he had fought. He was the one she should have married long ago, according to Papa’s plans, but he hadn’t wanted her.

It was almost twenty years ago that she had instead married her poor Friedrich. Twenty German years, a whirl of events and faces and noise and bad weather and even worse food and completely wretched theater.

She had missed good theater more than anything else, from the beginning, even more than palatable food. In German lands real theater was unknown; there, pitiful players roamed through the rain and screamed and hopped and farted and brawled. This was probably due to the cumbersome language. It was no language for theater, it was a brew of groans and harsh grunts, it was a language that sounded like someone struggling not to choke, like a cow having a coughing fit, like a man with beer coming out his nose. What was a poet supposed to do with this language? She had given German literature a try, first that Opitz and then someone else, whose name she had forgotten; she could not commit to memory these people who were always named Krautbacher or Engelkrämer or Kargholz-steingrömpl, and when you had grown up with Chaucer, and John Donne had dedicated verses to you—“fair phoenix bride,” he had called her, “and from thine eye all lesser birds will take their jollity”—then even with the utmost politeness you could not bring yourself to find any merit in all this German bleating.

She often thought back to the court theater in Whitehall. She thought of the small gestures of the actors, of the long sentences, their ever-varying, nearly musical rhythm, now swift and clattering along, now dying gradually away, now questioning, now bristling with authority. There had been theater performances whenever she came to the court to visit her parents. People stood on the stage and dissembled, but she had grasped at once that this was not so at all and that the dissembling too was merely a mask, for it was not the theater that was false, no, everything else was pretense, disguise, and frippery, everything that was not theater was false. On the stage people were themselves, completely true, fully transparent.

In real life no one spoke in soliloquies. Everyone kept his thoughts to himself, faces could not be read, everyone dragged the dead weight of his secrets. No one stood alone in his room and spoke aloud about his desires and fears, but when Burbage did so on the stage, in his rasping voice, his very thin fingers at eye level, it seemed unnatural that men should forever conceal what transpired within them. And what words he used! Rich words, rare, shimmering like cloth of gold—sentences so perfectly constructed that they were beyond anything you yourself could ever have managed. This is how things should be, the theater told you, this is how you should talk, how you should hold yourself, how you should feel, this is what it would be like to be a true human being.

When the performance was over and the applause faded, the actors returned to the state of paltriness. After taking their bows, they stood like extinguished candles. Then they approached, bending down low, Alleyn and Kemp and the great Burbage himself, to kiss Papa’s hand, and if Papa asked them something, they answered like people whom language resisted and to whom no clear sentences occurred. Burbage’s face was waxy and weary, and there was nothing special anymore about his now rather ugly hands. Hard to believe how quickly the spirit of lightness had abandoned him.

That spirit had itself appeared in one of the plays, which had been performed on Allhallows. It was about an old duke on a magical island, who captured his enemies only to spare them in the end. At the time she had been unable to understand why he had been lenient, and when she thought about it today, she still didn’t understand. If she had Wallenstein or the Kaiser in her power, she would handle things differently! At the conclusion of the play the duke had simply released his ministering spirit, so that he might pass into the clouds, the air, the sunlight, and the blue of the sea, and had remained behind like an old sack of flour, a wrinkly actor who now briefly apologized that he had no more lines. The leading dramatist of the King’s Men had taken on the role himself at the time. He was not one of the great actors, not Kemp and certainly not Burbage. You could even tell by looking at him that he struggled to remember his lines, which none other than he himself had written. After the performance he had kissed her hand with soft lips, and because it had been impressed on her that at such moments she must always ask some question, she had inquired whether he had any children.

“Two daughters living. And a son.”

She waited, for now it would be Papa’s turn to say something. But Papa was silent. The dramatist looked at her. She looked at him, her heart beginning to pound. All the people in the room were waiting, all the lords with their silk collars, all the ladies with diadems and fans—they were looking at her. And she realized that she had to keep talking. This was just how Papa was. When you were counting on him, he left you in the lurch. She cleared her throat to gain time. But you don’t gain much time by clearing your throat. You can’t clear your throat for very long, it hardly gets you anywhere.

And so she said that she was very sorry to hear of the death of his son. The Lord gave and the Lord took away, his will passed our understanding, and his trials made us strong.

For the blink of an eye, she was proud of herself. It takes quite a bit to manage something like that before the whole court, you have to be well-bred and quick-witted too.

The dramatist had smiled and bowed his head, and suddenly she had the feeling that she had made a fool of herself in a manner difficult to describe. She sensed herself turning red, and because she felt ashamed of this too, she turned even redder. She cleared her throat once again and asked him the name of his son. Not that it interested her. But nothing else occurred to her.

He answered in a soft voice.

“Really?” she asked in surprise. “Hamlet?”

“Hamnet.” He drew a breath, then said pensively and as if to himself that, although he could not pretend to have borne his trial with that fortitude she praised, yet today, when it was his great fortune to behold the future’s maiden face, he would swear that such a life as his, comprising such currents as had brought him to this sea, could not be counted among the worst, and that thanks to this moment in her gracious presence, he was disposed to accept with gratitude every pain and tribulation that lay in his past or, indeed, in days to come.

Here she couldn’t think of anything else to say for the time being.

All well and good, Papa finally said. But shadows were cast on the future. There were more witches than ever. The Frenchman was treacherous. The recent unity of England and Scotland was still untested. Doom was lurking everywhere. But worst of all were the witches.

Doom might well lurk, the dramatist replied, that was the nature of doom, yet the hand of a mighty ruler held it off, as the mantle of the air held off the heavy cloud and dissolved it into gentle rain.

Now it was Papa who couldn’t think of anything to say. This was funny, because it didn’t happen often. Papa was looking at the dramatist, everyone was looking at Papa, no one said anything, and the silence had already lasted too long.

Finally Papa turned away—just like that, without a word. He did this often, it was one of his tricks to unsettle people. Normally they wondered for weeks afterward what they had done wrong and whether they had fallen out of favor. But the dramatist seemed to see through it. Bowing as he walked backward, he departed, a faint smile on his face.

*

“Do you think you’re better than everyone else, Liz?” her fool had recently asked her when she had told him about it. “Have seen more, know more, come from a better land than we do?”

“Yes,” she had said. “I do.”

“And do you think your father will save you? At the head of an army, is that what you think?”

“No, I don’t think that anymore.”

“Yes, you do. You still believe that one fine day he will turn up and make you into a queen again.”

“I am a queen.”

At that he laughed derisively, and she had to swallow and push back tears and remember that it was his very duty—to tell her what no one else dared. That was why you had fools, and even if you didn’t want a fool, you had to consent to one, for without a court jester a court was not a court, and if she and Friedrich no longer had a country, at least their court had to be in order.

There was something strange about this fool. She had sensed it at once when he had first appeared, last winter, when the days had been especially cold and life even more impoverished than usual. At that time, the two of them had suddenly stood outside her door, the scrawny young man in the motley jerkin and the tall woman.

They had looked exhausted and haggard, ill from travel­ing and from the dangers of the wilderness. But when they had danced for her, there was a harmony, a consonance of the voices and bodies, such as she had not witnessed ever since she had left England. Then he had juggled, and she had pulled out the flute, and then the two of them had performed a play about a guardian and his ward, and she had feigned death, and he had found her lifeless, and in his grief he had killed himself, where­upon she had awoken and, her face contorted with horror, had seized his knife to now take her life too. Liz knew the story; it was from a play of the King’s Men. Moved by the memory of something that had once had great significance in her life, she had asked the two of them whether they wouldn’t stay. “We don’t yet have a jester.”

He had made his debut by giving her a painting. No, it was not a painting, it was a white canvas with nothing on it. “Have it framed, little Liz, hang it up. Show it to the others!” Nothing gave him the right to address her like that, but at least he pro­nounced her name correctly, complete with the English z—he did it as well as if he had been there. “Show it to your husband, the beautiful picture, let the poor king see it. And everyone else!”

She had done so. She had a green landscape painting, which she didn’t like anyhow, taken out of its frame and replaced with the white canvas, and then the fool had hung up the painting in the large room that she and Friedrich called their throne room.

“It’s a magic picture, little Liz. No one born out of wed­lock can see it. No one stupid can see it. No one who has stolen money can see it. No one up to no good, no one who cannot be trusted, no one who’s a gallows bird or a thievish knave or an arsehole with ears can see it—for him, there’s no picture there!”

She hadn’t been able to help laughing.

“No, really, little Liz, tell the people! Bastards and dolts and villains and men ripe for the gallows, none of them can see anything, neither the blue sky nor the castle nor the wonderful woman on the balcony letting down her golden hair nor the angel behind her. Tell them, watch what happens!”

What had happened still astonished her, every single day, and it would never cease to astonish her. The visitors stood helplessly before the white picture and didn’t know what they were supposed to say. For it was complicated, after all. They knew that nothing was there, of course, but they weren’t sure whether Liz knew it too, and thus it was also conceivable that she would take someone who told her that nothing was there for illegitimate, stupid, or thieving. They racked their brains. Had a spell been cast on the picture, or had someone fooled Liz, or was she playing a joke on everyone? The fact that by then almost everyone who came to the court of the Winter King and Queen was either illegitimate or stupid or a thief or a person with ill intentions didn’t make matters easier.

In any case, not many visitors came these days. In the past people had come to see Liz and Friedrich with their own eyes, and some had also come to make promises, for even if scarcely anyone believed that Friedrich would rule over Bohemia again, it was nonetheless not completely impossible either. To promise something cost little: as long as the man was out of power, you didn’t have to keep your word, but if he reascended, he would remember those who had stuck by him in dark times. By this time, however, promises were all they received; no one brought presents anymore that were valuable enough to be turned into money.

With an impassive face she had shown Christian von Braunschweig the white canvas, too. Stupid, deceitful, and illegitimate people, she had explained, could not see the mag­nificent painting, and then she had observed with a pleasure difficult to describe how her tearful admirer had kept looking helplessly across at the wall where the picture, mocking and blank, withstood his pathos.

“This is the best gift anyone has ever given me,” she said to her fool.

“That’s not saying much, little Liz.”

“John Donne wrote me an ode. Fair phoenix bride, he called—”

“Little Liz, he was paid, he would have called you a stinking fish too if he had been given money for it. What do you think I would call you if you paid me better!”

“And I got a ruby necklace from the Kaiser, a diadem from the King of France.”

“Can I see it?”

She was silent.

“Did you have to sell it?”

She was silent.

“And who is John Dung anyway? What sort of fellow is that, and who is fearful Nick’s bride supposed to be?” She was silent.

“Had to give it to the pawnbroker, your diadem? And the necklace from the Kaiser, little Liz, who is wearing it now?”

Not even her poor king had dared to say anything about the picture. And when she had explained to him that it was only a joke and the canvas was not enchanted, he had merely nodded and gazed at her uneasily.

She had always known that he wasn’t the cleverest. From the beginning it had been obvious, but for a man of his rank it wasn’t important. A prince did nothing, and if he happened to be unusually clever, it was nearly a blot on his honor. Subordinates had to be clever. He was himself—that was enough, nothing more was necessary.

This was the way of the world. There were a few real people, and then there were the rest: a shadowy army, a host of figures in the background, a swarm of ants crawling over the earth and having in common with each other that they were lacking something. They were born and died, were like the flecks of fluttering life that made up a flock of birds—if one disappeared, you hardly noticed it. The people who mattered were few.

Excerpted from Tyll by Daniel Kehlmann. Copyright © 2020 by Daniel Kehlmann. All rights reserved.

Apr 30 2020

28mins

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Rob Doyle: Threshold

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Youthful nihilism, contradictory impulses, preferences and desires catch up with Rob Doyle in his explicitly autobiographical novel Threshold. It is a cerebral and playful book, with accounts and investigations from his travels, and a threshold that explores reality and fiction, desire and fascination. As a protagonist Doyle's quest is for a meaningful significance that transcends the mundane. His is a novel with more energy, more comedy, and more direness than your everyday novel. Doyle describes wanting to exact a toll by confronting the reader.

An excerpt from “Threshold,” by Rob Doyle.

Tent

Nesrin was a Kurdish artist who claimed to have slept with two of the 9/11 hijackers, simultaneously, during a trip to America when she was seventeen, weeks before the men perished in a ball of fire above Manhattan. It was almost certainly a lie, but Nesrin used it as the basis for a video work, Love Collision , which was shown at underground galleries and club nights in Berlin. The work comprised a hardcore porn film in which Nesrin has sex with two men, intercut with footage of cities at night and hedonistic dance parties. The three performers have verses from the Koran inscribed on their bodies – a clear nod to Theo van Gogh’s film Submission.

I knew all this because my friend Fran told me about Nesrin when he heard I was visiting Kassel to cover the documenta festival for an art magazine. Nesrin was living in the city, and Fran thought it worth putting us in touch even though she was, he wrote in an email, ‘definitely evil, but in an original way’. Under no circumstances should I go to bed with her if the possibility arose, he insisted. It would not – ‘repeat, not ’ – end well. I replied that there was more than enough scorched earth in my past already. ‘Ah yes,’ he wrote back. ‘Scorched Earth Rob, lives his life like a retreating Nazi.’

Nesrin was an obscure artist in more senses than one. I read a few descriptions online of works she’d exhibited, but no search result divulged what I really wanted to know: what she looked like. I could find no photographs bar a couple of shadowy, indistinct portraits that suggested a slight, dark-haired woman dressed in black. I emailed her and explained that I was a friend of Fran’s. I mentioned the dates of my stay in Kassel and said it’d be cool to meet up if she had time. Two days later, Nesrin wrote back that she would rather not meet, but asked if I would be willing to participate in an ongoing artistic production relating to ‘art tourists’ in Kassel. I wouldn’t have to do much, she explained, just follow occasional instructions that she would send by email or text; for the rest of the time I could go about my visit as normal. Curiosity outweighed wariness; I agreed to take part.

The present curator, Adam Szymczyk – a man so hip he didn’t even need vowels in his surname – had declared that the festival would address the multiple crises the world was currently enduring: mass migration, the renaissance of the far right, looming ecological catastrophe and so on. Leaving aside the crisis of his unpronounceable name, you could see Szymczyk’s point – it really did feel like emergency time on planet earth – but this institutional yoking of art to political engagement seemed symptomatic of a broader cultural synergy: everywhere you looked, art was becoming indistinguishable from social work, progressivist politics, liberal guilt. To join the tribe called contemporary art, it was required that you loudly declaim a humanitarian worldview and place your work at its service. Often, when I looked at contemporary art, I sensed I was meant to fall on my knees and flagellate myself. In the programme there was even a listed event entitled Shame on Us, relating to the refugee crisis. That was it: Szymczyk would not feel satisfied unless everyone who visited Kassel crawled away in shame. The European Christianity of which art for centuries had been the efflorescence was finished – no hip artist would be seen dead with it – but its morality hung over the continent like ancient incense, and the scolding curators and shame-artists were its priests.

I left the documenta Halle just before eight o’clock, as the festival was shutting up shop for the night. Walking along the hillside that rose from Friedrichsplatz towards the high point of the town, above the motorway and forests, I scanned the rain-soaked walkways and elevated gardens – all quite deserted – for stray artworks. Now and then I mistook real-life objects for artistic representations of themselves – like this tent, surely pitched by a refugee or a vagrant, perched on a hillside beauty spot, looking out over balustrades. But wait, it was a real artwork – as opposed to a real tent. I approached cautiously, just in case, but yes, it was made not of canvas but of sculpted marble, a creamy-gold hue, its folds and billows smooth and lovely under my palms. The tent seemed to radiate an inner luminescence, the brightest point on the wintry August landscape. I stepped around the front and found that the tent was open. Muddy footprints were splattered across the fl oor. I stuck my head inside to see if it reeked of piss: it did not. If I’d had a sleeping bag I’d have been tempted to buy a few cans and curl up in there for the night, looking out at the rain and getting plastered. I liked this sculpture. I felt a pull towards it, as if it were my home in another reality. True, I again had the sense of an artist wagging her finger at me – the ease of my life compared to the biblical sufferings of the refugees who flooded Europe – yet there was an optimism to this luminous tent, squat like a Buddha with its back to the middle-aged crowds of Kassel.

The next morning I hurriedly fixed a mug of instant coffee, skipping breakfast to make up for a late start, the students in adjacent blocks having kept me awake blasting hip-hop with bass that rattled the headboard. I read an email that had arrived while I was in the shower, from Nesrin. She instructed me to visit an address that Google Maps indicated to be nearby. Fifteen minutes later I arrived at a ground-floor address in a run-down block on a street that was deserted but for a dog that snarled weakly before descending into a pedestrian tunnel.

As Nesrin had indicated, the door was unlocked. I stepped inside, leaving it ajar behind me. In the centre of the small studio room was a bed, low and unkempt, whose soiled linen no doubt accounted for the reek of stale sweat that hung in the air. On the floor next to the bed were two red buckets, empty. Six words were written in black marker on the wall: Eternity has never been so precarious. Pasted around the text were a number of black-and-white photographs that, I realised with a start, had evidently been taken the previous evening: I was looking at myself, from a stalker’s distance, wandering in the rain through the deserted gardens at the top of the city. I’d had no sense of being followed; the awareness that I’d been the object of covert attention brought a nervous thrill. Spotting a black marker on the floor by the bed, I picked it up and wrote the words Fuck Arses next to the first message. Two could play this game. 

I spent the rest of the morning seeking out permanent installations from documentas past, the imaginative sediment that had accrued over decades on Kassel’s parks and squares. The rain held off and silvery light leached through the clouds that hung above the city, awaiting orders. A text came in as I walked towards the Hauptbahnhof – my curator friend Stavro in Berlin, telling me his friend Estefanio was in Kassel for the week; I ought to meet him, he’d know the best parties. On the plaza in front of the train station I descended a metal staircase into a disused underground station that had been repurposed as art space. Weeds sprouted from between the tracks. Long white sculptures resembling strands of DNA snaked through the cavernous structure. Whispering voices filled the air, emanating from unseen sources embedded in the walls. In the glow cast by erratic chandeliers, I noticed a woman on the other side of the tracks, further down the platform. She was dressed in black, with dark hair, and she was taking photographs. I stood watching her until finally she looked up. We gazed at each other for longer than seemed appropriate. Then she turned and walked through a doorway. After hesitating a moment I leaped down, crossed the tracks and followed her. I entered a room where iridescent, digitised mosaics rotated and breathed on the walls and floor. I was alone: she had left through one of three doors, or via the staircase.

Back in daylight, I stopped for lunch at a Lebanese restaurant that bustled with map-clutchers. I ordered a falafel and chips. While awaiting my meal I checked my inbox: there was a new email from Nesrin, sent only minutes earlier. An inline image manifested over several data-sucking seconds. The photograph was in black and white, grainy like a CCTV still. Once more I was looking at myself, from above and behind this time, standing in the grimy studio I had entered hours earlier, with the buckets on the floor. The scene was as I remembered it but for one jarring difference: the bed in the middle of the room was not empty. In it lay the body of an unnaturally tall woman – or the black, scratchy outline of one. It did not look as if the image had been superimposed so much as burned away, an acid-corroded silhouette revealing an underlying dimension. The face was indistinct, but it was easy to imagine it was screaming. I scrolled down. A line below the image read: Choose the caption you prefer. There was a list:

Endlessly disintegrating / My death waits like a witch in the night / Who I fucked and what it meant / Poetry from the past, projected into the future as violence /Love in an air raid / Love in a bomb shelter / Our hate will never die / Only I know how much I loved you / An infi nite and magnifi cent sorrow / Blood butterflies / Once and never again / Family of ghosts / An investigation into my own disappearance / The wanderer and her shadow / A knife without a blade, that has lost its handle / I stay alive only to haunt you / Whispering into a seashell on a beach in the north

I copied Love in an air raid and pasted it into my reply, adding no words to the message. Then I gazed again at the photograph. I hadn’t noticed any camera in the room: it must have been well concealed above the doorway. Again I felt that dark frisson of intimacy, a not entirely unwelcome sense of violation. I sent another one-line email: Was that you in the underground?

Out in the sunlight, with my wheeled suitcase at my side, I still felt like death, like shit, but it wasn’t the extravagant pain I’d woken to. My train left in five hours. Slowly I wheeled my suitcase through the centre of Kassel, past whispering installations and cheery tourists who roamed in the Sunday-morning calm. In a Turkish shop off Friedrichsplatz I bought two bottles of wine and, although I hadn’t smoked in years, a pack of cigarettes. Out in the street I sent Nesrin one last message, telling her again where I was going. I said I hoped she bled to death. I told her I would love her forever. I pulled my suitcase along the pathway that led up from the square, through bright gardens to the roof of the city. The hillside was deserted, as calm as a monastery garden. The marble tent looked no less lovely in the daylight. This time it did smell of piss. I chucked my suitcase inside. Then I clambered in too. I sat with my legs folded beneath me, in the doorway, looking out over the forest, and the autobahn that streaked to the horizon. Some dark-brown vomit had dried on my sleeve. The thought of catching the train no longer seemed compelling. In the high morning sun I opened the first bottle of wine and took a gulp. I felt the liquid pour down my gullet, sloshing through my insides to the pit of my stomach. With that first mouthful of wine I was drunk again, as drunk as I had ever been. I lit a cigarette, and thought maybe I would stay drunk forever.

Adapted from Threshold by arrangement with Bloomsbury USA. Copyright © 2020, Rob Doyle.

Apr 23 2020

28mins

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Ariana Reines: A Sand Book

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Ariana Reines recently won the prestigious Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. In this show from the archives, Reines discusses her A Sand Book poetry being centered around a theme of hiding: running away and trying to escape. There is a chorus of sobbing in this book; its metaphysical concentration is related to wandering. Reines speaks of books that go beyond themselves and stay with the reader; she wrote one, and reads three poems from it.

Her original interview can be found here.

Apr 16 2020

28mins

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Charles North: Everything and Other Poems

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Charles North discusses being taught poetry by the influential Kenneth Koch. And Charles North discusses the pleasures of poetry. He describes Everything and Other Poems as “messy poetry” without the formal demands of his earlier work. New poems emerge from a new freedom. The long poem, Everything, is about the nature of poetry, and its ability to speak about everything: everything belongs, and everything can be worded into its own original formulation.

Read an excerpt from the book:

Pain Quotient

for David Watson

1

How to explain tragedy to a deer. This is the assignment.—Well, it isn’t the assignment it’s in the general category of things assigned, like grow- ing to a mature height of four inches if you happen to be a certain strain of ornamental cactus, or being shamed back to life by any means possible. I like the idea that hope springs eternal especially as the adjective, not adverb suggests that spring is a verb of being rather than action, it doesn’t have to be imagined or looked forward to, or yearned for, or original in any sense of the word. The present which is always with us, regardless. Take the piano music of objects, the black-and-white, the mystical harmonics, bipolarities, etc.

2

The afternoon smells like rosemary, whereas the morning was on the visual side, jutting among the albums. Someone David knew, an actress, referred to the café Pain Quotidien as Pain Quotient, apparently with a straight face. The Daily Pain (which I seem to remember my father bringing home from work). Or if you happen to be in show business, the pan. Take the extremist willows.

3

5:30 p.m. The soul goes out for its walk—just be sure you’re back in time for supper. The colors look pasted on, washy blue like a robin’s egg seen through a landlord shade, then just washed away. Where is conceptual art when you need it. Everyone knows that Janus Weathercock and Cornelius Van Vinckboons are too good not to be true, but very few know of their connection to the poet John Clare. Or that “they” were in fact the same person, who not only worked for London Magazine in the early part of the 19th century but was, according to Clare’s biographer Jonathan Bate, “the Oscar Wilde of his day.” I say metaphors have it easy. Brahms surging, receding, churning the already churned foam of Being 

whereas Rachmaninov is like a fist to the heart.

4

Suppose everyone were a lot less talkative. Or were prohibited from talking to anyone who spoke the same language, not only people but houseplants, raccoons, self-service elevators, winged salesmen from the future, etc. A gem-like solid framed by a ribbon of aluminum light. Begins in speech but is diverted primarily by all the mistakes from the remembered past. Another episode has a word whirling around its phonemes which are also whirling. We were talking about shaming someone back into life, the blood verities; hanging in the air “like a memory lost” but recapturable if you don’t mind the mix of truth and sprawl, fragments of all that can be thought without accompaniment or fixation. Or whatness. Characters get dragged in kicking and screaming from the wings and forget their resonant ties to objects. To be calmer than a rug, a particle from the 1940s, dizzying, I’ll take it. But you can have the stifling dream states, like a perpetual air-raid. Why so many notions settling in the middle of the forehead like a tableau vivant—so much more cause than affect. The summer retired early; was forced out actually like the recorder family from mainstream music. Mixed-use but heartfelt skyline.

Cinémathèque

I mean, who isn’t heating up for the next life
on the order of Antoine Doinel, or a pot of unsweetened
chocolate.
Beginning with a single window and the sense
that what we know outgrows everything except a headache
or the desk dreaming on its own. It doesn’t matter
if being upright brings living beings closer to
the lives they lead (one’s 26-year-old self smokes a cigar
but isn’t a desperado) nor is beginning a poem with
someone’s wrath a means of stepping outside the self
as though volume equalled flesh tones—any more than the Epic of the Roast Chicken with Lyonnaise potatoes and Buttered Greens takes over the above-ground, colors and smells pushed aside.

Apr 09 2020

28mins

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Harry Dodge: My Meteorite: Or, Without the Random There Can Be No New Thing

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Harry Dodge’s My Meteorite: Or, Without the Random There Can Be No New Thing shifts its scale from the cosmos to viruses. Nothing escapes. Robots and artificial intelligence are discussed in detail. Materialist Dodge says that technology is made by organisms made by matter, so no technology is unnatural. He says, “We are always changing, we’re never fully formed.” This is a book of constant revelation, and a perfect blend of style and content.

An excerpt from “From My Meteorite: Or, Without the Random There Can Be No New Thing,” by Harry Dodge.

March 2016 I walked in — back from Houston — greeted the baby and Maggie and then we (all of us at once) noticed the small box on the front porch. I hauled it into the house and onto our dinner table, held my breath. They watched while I got a knife; there was only the sound of cardboard tearing and then I retrieved a bowling ball of a thing suffocated in Bubble Wrap,

which appeared to be accompanied by zot, neither invoice nor receipt, no language. Remarkably heavy. And bandaged like this, in a relentless sad tape job that looked like it had been performed by a mental patient. Maggie backed away, suddenly nervous, pulled Iggy aside by the back of his shirt. I looked at them and back at the thing; unwrapped it while they watched. There it was, an iron glob of gum. It was buzzing, it was glowing, just smaller than a human head, but much heavier. Unbelievably heavy for its size, like it had a different type of gravity that applied to it; an alien gravity might have applied. It was dark gray but metallic too and had deep pits lined in black: gooey tortuous crevices, folds which were also penetrated by black and burnished in zigs and snoods, coruscant at its facets, or scallops, its outermost convexities, which could have been observed at this point to have been no less vulnerable for being lustrous. It was a turtle from the event horizon, a dog head from Jupiter. All the weight gave two simultaneous and opposite impressions: the impression that it would like to have squirmed away (dropped away maybe? barreled right through the Earth and on into the empty blue-black of space?), and a kind of stalwart noble servitude unstained by fear. I am here telling you, it was saying hello.

Do you think it is radioactive? Are you sure about this rock? Maggie refused to touch it, pulled Iggy out of the room, before relenting just a moment later. We all touched it at once, gingerly, guilelessly. We stared. It was beautiful in the most banal and obvious sense of the word, I mean, plainly and strongly seductive, erotic. It did occur to me that it might spy on us, or resubstantiate like a compressed-foam Jesus into some sort of elephantine cuttlefish overlord, so I didn’t know where to keep it overnight. Maggie was astonished. How do you know it’s real, she asked several times. I showed her a small card I had finally uncovered swaddled beneath the meteorite. Here’s an info card. He said he would send a certificate of authenticity, but I don’t see anything here. Maggie reads the card and says, Found 1527. Argentina, yah, looks like the colonizing Spaniards came upon a group of people who showed them this field, Campo del Cielo, in 1527. So these rocks fell while humans watched.

I treated the meteorite as I would any guest and laid it gently down on a small red wool coaster. And then got under my own covers to sleep. I dreamed that for the rest of my life I would reinvest all of the money that came in from selling artwork to purchase more and more pieces of this particular meteorite, the Campo del Cielo. I would spend my life reuniting the fragments and slowly I would become famous, an artist known for this obsession, and when they were all back together, all of the pieces in one room, there would be a Terminator-like “Rise of the Machines” via this METALLIC REUNIFICATION, a Big Bang in reverse; this thing I had caused, this thing I knew to do. I would be an agent of divine-material chaos—but it wouldn’t be a drag, it would be fate, it would be lovely and epic and right. Like the best heroin but rather than singly ecstatic, encased in ugly nods, it would be ubiquitously, publicly salutary. The stress of the world would gather into a point and, having become too dense to be supported by the web of our collective desire, would whorl into a baby black hole and drop all of the matter of our galaxy through an interstellar poop-shoot into a teardrop-shaped bag of shit which would land in some nature canyon somewhere; it (terrestrial intersubjective tension and its more intellectual cousin, torsion) would then start again so meekly that it might be mistaken for the weak- force itself, gravity. It would glow and the magnetic field would start to creep around a new Earth in another part of the (still) observable universe. We’d all die but our constituent pieces would become other, much cooler, stuff. I woke up horny.

In the morning I decided to take the meteorite out of the house but didn’t know how to carry it; I chose a large clean canvas tote and tried not to bonk it around too much as I walked. It was metal but may as well have been flesh and bone. It was clearly alive to me: an iron creature. On a shelf just above my welder, I let it sit in my studio for three days without looking at it again.

But then things started to happen. Unbelievable things happened.

“From My Meteorite: Or, Without the Random There Can Be No New Thing” by Harry Dodge. Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Harry Dodge, 2020.

Apr 02 2020

28mins

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Rebecca Solnit: Recollections of My Nonexistence

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Recollections of My Nonexistence is a personal, cultural, political, and journalistic hybrid narrative about formative years in the life of Rebecca Solnit. A first-person account from San Francisco in the 1980s, she describes finding her voice, and invokes the possibility of others finding their voices as well. Nobody should have to carry the burden of nonexistence. Solnit finds beauty in the contemporary revolution of storytelling, and says each voice has a capacity to bear witness to what’s happened.

Book excerpt: Recollections of My Nonexistence Chapter 1:

One day long ago, I looked at myself as I faced a full length mirror and saw my image darken and soften and then seem to retreat, as though I was vanishing from the world rather than that my mind was shutting it out. I steadied my- self on the door frame just across the hall from the mirror, and then my legs crumpled under me. My own image drifted away from me into darkness, as though I was only a ghost fading even from my own sight.

I blacked out occasionally and had dizzy spells often in those days, but this time was memorable because it appeared as though it wasn’t that the world was vanishing from my consciousness but that I was vanishing from the world. I was the person who was vanishing and the disembodied person watching her from a distance, both and neither. In those days, I was trying to disappear and to appear, trying to be safe and to be someone, and those agendas were at often odds with each other. And I was watching myself to see if I could read in the mirror what I could be and whether I was good enough and whether all the things I’d been told about myself were true.

To be a young woman is to face your own annihilation in in- numerable ways or to flee it or the knowledge of it, or all these things at once. “The death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world,” said Edgar Allan Poe, who must not have imagined it from the perspective of women who prefer to live. I was trying not to be the subject of someone else’s poetry and not to get killed; I was trying to find a poetics of my own, with no maps, no guides, not much to go on. They might have been out there, but I hadn’t located them yet.

The struggle to find a poetry in which your survival rather than your defeat is celebrated, perhaps to find your own voice to insist upon that, or to at least find a way to survive amidst an ethos that relishes your erasures and failures is work that many and perhaps most young women have to do. In those early years, I did not do it particularly well or clearly, but I did it ferociously.

I was often unaware of what and why I was resisting, and so my defiance was murky, incoherent, erratic. Those years of not succumbing, or of succumbing like someone sinking into a morass and then flailing to escape, again and again, come back to me now as I see young women around me fighting the same battles. The fight wasn’t just to survive bodily, though that could be intense enough, but to survive as a person possessed of rights, including the right to participation and dignity and a voice. More than survive, then: to live.

The director, writer, and actor Brit Marling said recently, “Part of what keeps you sitting in that chair in that room enduring harassment or abuse from a man in power is that, as a woman, you have rarely seen another end for yourself. In the novels you’ve read, in the films you’ve seen, in the stories you’ve been told since birth, the women so frequently meet disastrous ends.”

The mirror in which I saw myself disappear was in the apartment I inhabited for a quarter century, beginning in the last months of my teens. The first several years there were the era of my fiercest battles, some of which I won, some of which left scars I still carry, many of which so formed me that I cannot say I wish that it had all been otherwise, for then I would have been someone else entirely, and she does not exist. I do. But I can wish that the young women who come after me might skip some of the old obstacles, and some of my writing has been toward that end, at least by naming those obstacles.

Mar 26 2020

28mins

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The incomparable Silverblatt

By cookie11ru - Nov 01 2019
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I wonder if he had that voice as a child?

The Best

By FloydLQ - Sep 28 2018
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The greatest Silverblatt is the most insightful reader alive